Cover Story: 'She's the CEO'

Katie Brown Blackburn is No. 1 on the Bengals' depth chart as her father prepares to hand off to the next generation

 
Jymi Bolden


Like her father and grandfather before her, Katie Brown Blackburn watches the Bengals practice on weekday afternoons.



Floating atop the pile of stuff on Katie Brown Blackburn's desk is a heavy binder titled NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement 1993-2003. A table nearby is cluttered with her daughter's artwork from the day before, when she had to miss school and spent the day in her mom's office.

The scene perfectly displays the collision of Blackburn's two worlds, each pulling at her with an equal tug.

Her official job title is Cincinnati Bengals executive vice president, but it hardly begins to describe the real meaning of her status with the team. Team President Mike Brown, her father, has a clearer view.

"She's a very integral part of everything we do," says Brown, the patriarch of the family that owns the NFL franchise. "Her role has expanded and continues to expand. She's the CEO."

When asked if his daughter is the CEO what that leaves for him, Brown chuckles and says, "I wonder at times."

Trying to have it all
There isn't a topic that Brown is more delighted to discuss than the success of his daughter, who is the Bengals' future power broker. He says there isn't a timetable for the takeover and it probably will just continue in the gradual evolution that began when Blackburn started working with the team in 1991.

"I'd like to stay involved," Brown says. "But she'll be the one carrying the ball."

Brown says he remembers former Dallas Cowboys owner Tex Schramm talking to him at an NFL function and saying how he wished he had a situation in his family like the one between Brown and his highly respected father Paul, the Bengals' founder and NFL innovator.

"The same thing has happened with me and Katie as it did between me and my father," Brown says. "There's just not much of anything she doesn't have a hand in."

The scope of her responsibility doesn't seem to bother the 36-year-old Blackburn, the only female chief contract negotiator in the NFL. She has the resolute calm of someone who knows her business but feels no need to impress. But while her father has angered fans with his stubborn no-nonsense attitude, Blackburn has a way of getting her point across in a kindler, gentler fashion.

"She deserves great credit in a rough, tough macho world, to survive at that particular negotiating point," says agent Leigh Steinberg, whose life was fictionalized in Jerry Maguire, a movie that showed the sometimes heartless manner of sports agents. "Somewhere in her, there's an inner sense of self-confidence, some inner sense of peace which allows someone to not be shaken off course. There's a belief system well-integrated that allows an ability to be impervious to external threats and pressures and battles that can become public."

The history Steinberg senses comes from two things within Blackburn — her intelligence and grasp of the numbers involved in negotiating contracts and her innate love of the Bengals.

Nancy Brown, Blackburn's mother, remembers her daughter tagging along to Bengals training camp in the summers, handing out player rosters to fans and doing whatever little chores her father could find for her. Blackburn recalls making banners to hang in the stadium for big games.

The Browns' oldest child was the sort every parent yearns for, starting kindergarten at age 4 and skipping second grade. She was never any trouble, and the only thing that worried her mother was maybe she was a bit too diligent.

"I'll never forget one time she was asked to go to a party and she told the kids, 'My mother won't let me go.' I never told her that," Nancy Brown says. "I guess she just didn't feel the need for the social aspect. She was younger than most of the kids and she was an achiever. She was always getting one award after another."

After playing tennis at Cincinnati Country Day, Blackburn graduated at age 16 and headed to her father's alma mater, Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. Her father had earned a varsity letter in football, and Katie went on to play goalie on the women's hockey team.

She earned undergraduate degrees in math and economics, graduating in 1986, and went to the University of Cincinnati law school, earning her degree in 1989. Blackburn then went to work for the law firm of Taft, Stettinius and Hollister for two years before getting involved with the Bengals in 1991.

Her father tried to talk her out of joining the team, but she would have none of that.

"He wanted to make sure I went out and did what I wanted to do," Blackburn says. "If I wanted to be a doctor, be a doctor. I just liked this and wanted to do this. I love football. I love to watch the game. I like to study the stats. I like to watch the films. I like to watch college football. I even like to watch high school football.

"I do think it's a good sport. It's a fun sport to watch. There are a lot of moving parts. I would have love to have played it. I might not be any good, but I would love to go play."

She met her husband Troy, a former Duke University baseball player, when he was a summer intern at Taft Stettinius, and soon a relationship that started out as casual tennis and jogging dates became serious. It's a marriage so comfortable that, when Troy began working on many of the issues surrounding Paul Brown Stadium construction full-time at the firm, it seemed natural to all the Browns that he'd join the family business.

Both Blackburns enjoy the ability to work full-time with their spouse, and sometimes they'll even leave the office for a quick jog to break up the working day. It's a unique situation for Blackburn, who works with not only her husband but her father and younger brother Paul on an almost daily basis.

Her mother usually takes care of the children — Elizabeth, 8, and Caroline, 6 — when they get home from school, but sometimes they, too, end up a part of the occasional weekend negotiating session.

"My kids are my No. 1 priority in my life," Blackburn says. "I would do anything for them. I just like kids in general. So I'm focused on making sure I have the right balance. Luckily, with the way we're set up here, I do see my dad, my brother and my husband at work every day. I do see all of my family a lot, and I have a lot of respect for all of them."

Blackburn fiercely guards her time with her children. When she isn't at work, she spends all her time playing with the kids.

Her mother says she can't understand how her daughter can ignore the piles of laundry and papers cluttering the kitchen counters to sit down and play a game of dominoes or Clue with her kids. Or Katie will take them outside, and they'll all go biking or play soccer or baseball.Troy Blackburn describes his wife as a "kid at heart" and says she's the one who gets the kids up on Christmas morning because she wants them to open the packages or she'll spend weeks planning the kids' birthday parties. He even reveals that his wife's favorite reading material is People magazine and that she's been known to eat a balanced breakfast of M&Ms and Mountain Dew.

"The beauty of Katie is there's no surprises," Troy Blackburn says. "She is honest, she works hard and she wants to see her family do well and the team do well. She's not out there trying to get invited to the most cocktail parties."

In fact, Troy says his wife is so immersed in the quest for the team's success, it reveals one of her greatest flaws.

"She curses like a sailor when she's watching the team play games," he says, chuckling. "I've learned new words."

Despite a desire to dedicate time to the kids, Blackburn admits a family vacation might be bringing them along to the NFL scouting combine or a game somewhere. She says she enjoys golf, but it takes up so much time away from the kids and work that she's never able to relax when she goes out to play."It's funny, you plan for your kids to be in something like the business but you never really think, well, she'll have kids," Nancy Brown says. "You don't think about that part of it. There's no doubt about it, Katie has the ability and the mindset to run the team, but she is torn between the two worlds."

Blackburn agrees.

"When I'm at the office I'm feeling guilty about not being home," she says, "and when I'm home, I feel guilty about not being at the office."

Still, a support system that includes her father and her husband makes the situation work. She even finds time for charity work with the Boys and Girls Club and United Way, and she serves on the boards of her children's school and the Queen City Club.

Similar but different
James Gould, a Cincinnati-based agent who represents wide receiver Peter Warrick, the Bengals' top pick two years ago, has seen both the work and home sides of Blackburn. He negotiated Warrick's contract and numerous others with her, he's a neighbor in Indian Hill and he was Caroline's soccer coach.

One time, when the Warrick negotiations had reached a boiling point, Blackburn called a 24-hour timeout and then phoned him the next day to restart talks. Gould, a divorced father of two, says he had his boys that weekend.

Blackburn's response: "Bring them over." So he did, and while he and Katie hammered out the deal in her office, Troy was out playing soccer with his own girls and Gould's boys.

"She's extremely educated about what it is she's doing," Gould says. "She does her homework, and she's very principled. She doesn't like to move off a point, but if she trusts you she'll work with you."

Richard Katz, another Cincinnati-based agent who's negotiated several Bengal contracts with Blackburn, including John Jackson's and Vaughn Booker's, says her biggest strength is her ability to listen.

"I enjoy dealing with her," Katz says. "Now I'm not a guy who takes his shoe off and beats it on the desk, but she's got a very good grasp of the numbers and she's very quick and intelligent. Her personality in negotiations fits like a glove because of the professionalism. And she really knows that collective bargaining agreement. Right now, with appendices, it's about 264 pages of about eight-point type. And if I had a question about what something meant in there, I wouldn't hesitate to call her."

It's difficult to determine if Blackburn's more amenable style translates into a different type of Bengals in the future. She and her father have different personalities, but they share some of the same beliefs about careful spending and keeping the business family-run.

"I've never bothered to analyze my style," says Mike Brown. "From what I gather, I'm more confrontational than Katie. She gets along with people in a more even-keeled way. I don't know if that's because she's a woman or that's just her nature, or a little of both.

"In some ways, Katie goes beyond what I can do. She's very good with numbers and very good with people. If people would confront me, I would show them how to spell confrontation. But she maintains a very good relationship at all times."

Both Brown and Blackburn maintain their vision is one and the same — to win.

"I know there's a lot of conspiratorial theories out there that we don't want to win," Brown says. "It's odd when you think people have those. There hasn't been enough winning, and she feels that. I wouldn't wish (the fans' abuse) on her. But it doesn't have to be that way if we could manage to win a few football games."

An obligation to the fans
Some agents feel that the Bengals don't stand a chance to be successful unless they're willing to make a definite change in the way the team is run. That means hiring a professional general manager to make player personnel decisions and adding more scouts.

The new stadium and better perks for players have helped, the agents say, but the atmosphere for free agents in today's NFL is a competitive one.

Perhaps because she was more involved in bringing the stadium to fruition than her father, Blackburn understands a certain obligation to the people of Cincinnati, who helped make the dream of new facilities come true. She also understands their frustrations with the team's performance.

"Obviously, there was a vote on it and it did involve everyone," she says. "What you want people to feel good about is the result, and I guess you want them to think of it as a good thing for the community that can benefit everyone even if maybe you don't come to a football game. When the team hasn't done well, everything becomes that much harder. It's hard to separate the two.

"But you can look around and see other stadiums that have gone up where teams have had success and there are always issues. It's a large project and they usually do involve public money and therefore there are always different perspectives on the decision to do this or to use the money for this type of thing. It's something that's intended to be a benefit for the community and represent the community."

Now that Paul Brown Stadium is up and running, Blackburn has focused her attention to getting the team back on a winning track. There have been lows in that process, and she cites last year's losing skid, followed by coach Bruce Coslet's abrupt departure, as a particularly disappointing time. But she focused on the positive aspects of her personal life and family to get through it.

Insiders are always baffled by the public's belief that the Brown family doesn't care about winning. It seems to be the one thing that drives them all, especially Blackburn.

"Just from listening to radio shows and such, I would think that people do think we're emotionally tied up in the team," Blackburn says. "Different teams, there's always somebody who seems to take the hit when things don't go right. A lot of places it might be the quarterback, in a lot of places it might be the coach and around here it's mainly been my dad. And I think in part that's because he doesn't step out and try to push the focus to other areas, which you could try and do. He feels very responsible. The bottom line is, fans want the same thing we want. So we'll keep working together.

"He's not a quitter; I'm not a quitter. You're not going to quit, so you try to listen to the right part of the (fans') message. Which is, what can we do? I'm certainly more emotional about it than he is. Maybe with age, you get a little more perspective."

Although Blackburn says she sees differences between her and her father, they aren't that far apart either.

"My personal vision is an amalgamation of what I saw with my grandfather and what I saw with my dad," she says. "I'd be lying if I said I can't wait to take the team in a new direction, because I have a lot of respect for what they've done. They have a lot of appreciation for the game of football and trying to keep the game itself a good one at a league-wide level. And I don't think everyone out there always operates with that perspective."

And Blackburn is in no hurry for the transfer of power. She still winces when her dad calls her Pumpkie, his pet name for her, especially when it slips out in meetings. But she definitely likes having him around as a supervisor.

Her father jokes that the only thing he has left is his chair, but he's still at the top of the flow chart and his daughter wants to keep it that way.

"I'm glad to be where I am now and I feel fortunate for it," she says. "I want to continue to be somewhere around here. But I don't make any assumptions beyond that. I'm trying to prepare myself (to take over). And if it comes, I'll be ready.

"But I want my dad to be around for as long as possible. I don't want him to go anywhere. I want him to keep doing what he loves doing." ©

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