Soon after Sheila Ford Hamp became owner of the Detroit Lions in June, she reached out to an old friend. They trade emails frequently, discussing grandkids, life and memories of their time together at Yale. However, this conversation would be different.
The friend had written a book, one she felt her employees should read. The author, at first, suggested something shorter. Perhaps the New York Times op-ed he wrote in April. Hamp said no. She wanted them to read the 320-page book instead.
In many aspects of her life, Hamp has gone beyond words to action. She had already publicly backed her players’ right to speak out on racial and social issues. Those topics, she said, had “finally, finally, thank goodness, gotten national attention.” She approved if her football staff chose to sign free-agent quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who began protesting police brutality during the national anthem in 2016.
Those were the words. What happened next provided action.
Her friend is Emmy Award-winning filmmaker, author and documentarian Henry Louis Gates Jr., who wrote “Stony The Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and The Rise of Jim Crow,” which was published in 2019.
Along with a letter Hamp and Gates co-wrote to the team “talking about this particular moment in history and race relations and why this moment was very similar to the collapse of reconstruction and the rise of white supremacy,” Hamp distributed copies of the book to everyone in the organization and invited Gates to speak to the Lions.
The meeting took place over Zoom on Aug. 28. Three days earlier, and long after the Gates meeting had been set up, the Lions became the first pro team to protest police brutality and systemic racism over the shooting of Jacob Blake by canceling their practice.
“What the Lions have not gotten credit for is that had they not boycotted practice, the NBA would never have done what they did,” Gates said. “It was the Lions who really started this process leading to the Wednesday boycott. I think the NBA was just following the Lions’ lead.”
The presentation began with a 20-minute clip of one of Gates’ documentaries. Socially distant and wearing masks at the indoor practice field, those in the room stayed silent. Gates addressed the players’ protest in his opening remarks.
Then Hamp led a question-and-answer session with Gates, focusing on the history of race, the rise and fall of reconstruction, the importance of voting rights and getting out the vote. She asked him, ‘Why is reconstruction important?’ and ‘Why did you choose to do this now?’ Her third question, before opening the floor to players, was, “What can these Lions players do to address systemic racism?”
The whole session lasted 90 minutes. Players had enough questions that it could have gone much longer.
“This was all Sheila’s idea — to buy the book, to distribute it, to have me do a presentation,” Gates said. “To give people on the team a chance to talk to me and a way for them to brainstorm about channeling all of the anxiety and fear and anger that we all have about George Floyd and other things we have happening in the United States.
“That’s the kind of person she is. It’s a long-winded way of saying: How many owners of the NFL are calling Black scholars to talk about race?”
During Hamp’s senior year of high school at Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Connecticut, Yale announced it would allow female undergraduates for the first time.
Hamp, a high-level tennis player with family history at the school, applied. In 1969, she moved into Vanderbilt Hall as one of the first 230 freshmen women to enroll.
“They weren’t really ready for it then,” said Margaret Pfister, a member of the second class of Yale female undergraduates and one of Hamp’s Yale tennis teammates. “Like, what are we going to do with these girls? Oh, we’ll lock all the freshmen up in the Vanderbilt dorm, put a guard there and see what happens.
“That’s really what happened on the old campus.”
Female athletes had to change in their dorms and bus to the courts. Tennis started as a club sport — the first coach essentially had only high school coaching experience — and became one of Yale’s first varsity teams. They mostly competed against other Ivy League schools and took a spring break trip, raising money for it through their families. They had uniforms, practice time and, eventually, locker rooms, but little else.
“We had to apply some pressure in order to move the university in the right direction,” former tennis teammate Linden Havemeyer Wise said.
By the spring of her junior year in 1972, Hamp became one of 16 rising seniors and part of the second group of women chosen to in Book and Snake, a prestigious Yale secret society on which she still sits on the board.
Part of the allure of Book and Snake, besides her family history in it, was its diversity. Among the new members was her future lifelong friend, Gates, who said five women and five Black people were in their class.
Tradition required attendance at dinners Thursday and Sunday nights. Part of society requirements was presenting an autobiographical accounting of your life called “The Auto.”
“This was all Sheila’s idea — to buy the book, to distribute it, to have me do a presentation. … How many owners of the NFL are calling Black scholars to talk about race?”
Emmy-winning historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. on Sheila Ford Hamp
“You had to tell them what’s good about you, what’s bad about you, your hopes, your dreams, your fears,” Gates said. “I don’t know how the tradition started, but that’s the heart of the experience, so you really get to know people intimately.”
As much as she loved tennis, football was her passion. Gates recalled her “mastery on the subject.” While she majored in art history, Hamp was one of two women admitted into a 15-person seminar called “Sports and American Society,” taught by legendary sportswriter Red Smith.
As part of the once-a-week course that discussed social issues of the time and their relation to sports, they wrote papers for The New York Times writer and future Pulitzer Prize winner to read.
“Red critiqued our papers,” said Lawrie Mifflin, the other woman in the seminar who became a sportswriter for the Daily News and The New York Times. “So there was an element of writing, of getting that kind of input from him, criticism of your writing, which was fantastic.” Hamp got an A on one. She still has it.
When Hamp graduated in 1973, she wanted to work for the NFL. She spent years going to events and games with her father, then-Lions owner William Clay Ford Sr. Times were different. No job existed for her.
She’d wait more than four decades for the chance, finally starting to have a large input in an NFL franchise when her mother took over ownership after her father died in 2014.
Harold Skramstad was inside his suburban Chicago home 40 years ago when his doorbell rang. Hamp, in her late-20s, stood unannounced outside with a plea. Come work for her and her family.
Skramstad was happy in his job as the director of the Chicago History Museum. He had been contacted by a headhunter about this position. He said no. Then Hamp showed up, asking him to reconsider, explaining the importance of the job.
She had no reason to think Skramstad would change his mind and run The Henry Ford Museum, where she sat on the board. Still, she went after her target to try to persuade him.
“It was an impressive showing,” Skramstad said. “I was impressed that a board member of the organization was that interested in it, that they were willing to go out and take some bold moves.”
Hamp’s visit led to Skramstad going through the interview process and taking the job. Together, they turned The Henry Ford from an also-ran into a state-of-the-art museum.
After his first board meeting, Skramstad saw the passion. She pushed for change, bringing in outside board members with fresh ideas, including recruiting Roger Penske, among others, to help.
Hamp, who remains on the board as vice chair, helped negotiate securing and transporting the Firestone Farmhouse to the museum. She and Penske earned the first sizable donation from General Motors to the museum. Everything as a team — their plan, not her plan.
It’s that type of collaboration and forward thinking that could be a benefit for the 68-year-old in perhaps her biggest challenge: Owning the Lions.
After decades of watching, she spent five years at her mother’s side. Part of it was apprenticeship, but she had input on massive moves, including retaining general manager Bob Quinn and head coach Matt Patricia last year and the mid-season firings of then-team president Tom Lewand and then-general manager Martin Mayhew after a 1-7 start in 2015.
When her mother stepped down and made Hamp the controlling owner, she became the third Ford to run the team in more than a half-century of futility, with one playoff win and no Super Bowl appearances.
This is her job, to try to change the fortune of a franchise badly in need of one.
“One of the things she learned very young and has stayed with her is, ‘Can I really make a difference at this organization? Because that’s the only way I can do it,'” Skramstad said. “For Sheila, she’s got to be all-in or all-out.
“… The thing that excited me the most about the change at the Lions is she’s going to do this with the same sort of sense of commitment and research and as a competitor, she’s not going to let anything get in her way.”
While she knows she’ll have to become more public in her new role, Hamp values her privacy. Her bio in the team’s media guide is six paragraphs — two of which are devoted to her taking over ownership and working as vice chair. She declined interview requests for this story.
After marriage, she and her husband, Steve, settled into an older Ann Arbor, Michigan, neighborhood where they had three kids and largely blended in. The children played sports — particularly soccer, and, for years, Hamp was “Coach.”
“The main thing that sticks out to me now is how much you would never know that Sheila was a Ford or a member of a family of that stature or was that well off,” said Ace Anbender, one of the kids-turned-adults Hamp coached on her son Peter’s team. “She was very much like your average soccer mom turned coach.
“She was great at overseeing the team, making sure things were organized.”
High-level tactics were unnecessary. These were elementary school kids. Yet she spent time studying soccer and tried to create the best experience possible. As the team advanced in age, she brought in an assistant to handle intricacies of the game.
For years, she led purple-jerseyed Rampage players in the Ann Arbor Rec & Ed League with varying levels of seriousness and humility.
“Our first season, the first or second game, I let in my first-ever goal,” said Greg Brown, one of her players. “There are certain sports experiences that are traumatic, if you will. In this instance, I let the goal in and then I completely and utterly broke down on the field. I’m there in the goal box, having just let the goal in, crying and sobbing, thinking the world was over.
“Sheila was the first one to rush right out and comfort me and console me. That is the kind of person she is, the kind of friend, the kind of coach she was.” Brown was 5.
Hamp traditionally held end-of-season parties at their home with video game consoles in their basement and cans of Orangina for the kids.
Sheila and Steve Hamp became friends with the parents of other children on the team, including Peter and Roseann Brown. Doug and Greg Brown played on two separate teams with the Hamp children, Kiff and Peter. Roseann became Sheila’s co-coach.
They couldn’t have been more different: Hamp the former college athlete, Brown the graphic artist who knew nothing about soccer. Hamp ran drills. Brown focused on the mental side — one practice teaching visualization instead of skill development.
A close friendship formed. The Hamps and Browns were frequent dinner partners. Sometimes, Greg and Doug tagged along with Hamp to Lions training camp.
When Roseann received a breast cancer diagnosis, the Hamps were there and helped wherever possible for years. When Roseann became sick at a soccer function, Sheila took Greg back to the Hamp home and he spent the night — a small measure of comfort remembered decades later. Sheila took Roseann’s sickness hard, but remained positive. When Roseann’s condition worsened in 2001, Sheila visited several times. A pre-Christmas dinner gave Roseann brief respite near the end of her life.
When Roseann died in January, 2002, at age 46, Peter asked Sheila to give a eulogy at the memorial service. Sheila declined. It was a private moment of grief and too hard for her to speak. She called back hours later to say she’d do it.
At the First Congregational Church of Ann Arbor, Sheila told the story of getting lost on a walk in northern Michigan and Roseann asking if she’d ever seen how clouds always look flat on the bottom — something Sheila still looks for.
Decades later, memories of Roseann remain: Several pieces of her work are displayed in the Hamp’s Ann Arbor home.
While Hamp is passionate about sports and that part of the family business, she also held her love of the arts. It led her to a small theater company in Chelsea, Michigan, called The Purple Rose. Its founder, actor Jeff Daniels, is a massive Lions fan. One day, a development director brought Hamp to see the theater. The company was rehearsing for a production.
Perhaps she saw an organization in need of her help — Daniels was busy working, and artistic director Guy Sanville said the Board of Directors was “in disarray.” Maybe she just liked the play. It was enough to get Hamp and her husband to join in 2009.
They assisted in redeveloping the board, including splitting Sanville’s roles to create separate artistic and executive directors to manage the theater. They brought in outside help — like she’d done at The Henry Ford years earlier — and helped turn a small operation into a modern nonprofit.
They helped create Ford Fridays, offering reduced costs for new theater customers with benefits to help convince them of membership, and developed a 10-year capital fundraising campaign to sustain The Purple Rose for the next 25 years. With other board members, they formed a Backyard Barbecue fundraiser in 2012 that began small — raising $25,000 — and grew into a 300-person event raising $250,000 per year.
“She is not someone who, you can see some boards where people are on it and perhaps you write a check. There’s not that kind of engagement,” said Maria Leonhauser, a Purple Rose board member and friend of Hamp’s. “She’s engaged. She does her homework. She is really prepared for all the meetings. It’s really, it’s a joy because I have served on other boards where it’s not the same, you know.
“Sheila gets things done. When she commits, they get all that she can do. My theatre company is better because of Sheila and Steve’s leadership. The Lions will be as well.”
Actor Jeff Daniels
“That’s what I mean by she’s been grooming herself for it. It’s grooming herself for this to continue to really, whatever she’s going to undertake in a leadership role she’s going to make sure she does it correctly using that kind of governance she’s demonstrated.”
When the Hamps became co-chairs in 2014, Sheila made her intentions clear in a short, to-the-point speech. She said they were going to do things the right way, preached accountability and put people in positions to succeed.
The Hamps have seen every play The Purple Rose has performed since joining the board — often on opening night. They know every person in the company, something Sanville called a rarity. “Sheila gets things done,” Daniels said in a statement to ESPN. “When she commits, they get all that she can do. My theatre company is better because of Sheila and Steve’s leadership. “The Lions will be as well.”
Throughout many aspects of her life, Hamp has shown an openness to learn and willingness to take chances, and understands the importance of loyalty.
It’s what she did at the museum. At the theatre. At Yale. And, potentially, with the Lions — where she mentioned wanting to understand football analytics to help her in her job.
The competitiveness of being a high-level former college athlete remains, too. In one answer at her introductory news conference, she said “I hate to lose” three times in 20 words. She has waited almost a half-century for this. Prepared, in some ways, her whole life for it.
Sheila Ford Hamp will push change when necessary. You might see it. You just might not hear she was the one who did it.
“It’s never about her. It’s not,” Leonhauser said. “It’s all about these responsibilities that she takes on but not so she can toot her own horn about it. She just goes about her own business and does what she thinks is right.
“And that’s her strength.”