On December 22, 2020, Danita Johnson made history when D.C. United announced that she had accepted an offer to become the team’s President of Business Operations. With her stepping into that role, she became the first black person and only the 3rd woman to serve as the president of a MLS club in the league’s history. By leaving her comfort zone of basketball to enter the soccer world, she was entering a space that didn’t have anyone like her in it, especially in the executive roles that run the business or technical sides of any of the 26 teams in Major League Soccer.
On Episode 39 of the Stars & Stripes FC Podcast, Danita Johnson joined the show to talk about her career in basketball, moving to the Black-and-Red and what she hoped to accomplish in the short and long term, and the challenge that being the first black woman to run a soccer team present.
A native of Fayetteville, North Carolina, Johnson got her start in the basketball world as a sports intern with the Fayetteville Patriots, one of the G League’s charter teams. She helped launch the Bakersfield Jam in the G League as well as the Tulsa Shock of the WNBA when they moved from Detroit (now the Dallas Wings). Danita also had roles with the Phoenix Mercury, Phoenix Suns, the Washington Mystics, and as Director of Basketball Operations for the Los Angeles Clippers before she became the President and chief operating officer of the Los Angeles Sparks in 2019. It’s that lengthy experience that propelled her into the role with D.C. United, but she knew moving into soccer would be a challenge.
“I love a challenge, and stepping out of my comfort zone presents a challenge both professionally and personally,” Johnson said on the show. “Moving to D.C. United is a whole new world for me…I’m excited for the growth that we get to create for the club.”
Johnson admitted that when applying for the job, she didn’t know that she would be the first Black woman to hold the title of President for a MLS team. “When it all connected, I kinda asked myself, ‘What does this all mean?’” It was that challenge that intrigued her and when asked if it created any extra pressure, Johnson stately confidently, “I embrace [the pressure].”
With the social justice movement in full swing since last summer, Danita Johnson was in the unique role of working in the WNBA, who was the leader of efforts to call attention to the racial inequities that exist in sports and the world. She learned from the players that used their platform to speak up and speak out. “My time in basketball awoke my own voice,” Johnson recalled about the Wubble and the various basketball teams she has worked for in her career. “I didn’t realize how powerful our voices were until I starting watching our athletes...in the [WNBA] and the NBA start to really push a message forward.”
“People need to hear it, they need to see it. My time in that league taught me that I had a voice and that it mattered.”
Johnson will feature Friday on a panel on sports and inclusion at U.S. Soccer’s SheBelieves Summit. When asked what advice she wanted to give young women about how to make it in a sports world dominated by men in the boardroom, she replied, “For me, I want to help [young women] navigate it.” She thinks by letting them know about her path and the bumps she experienced along the way.
We ended with when it would sink in for her that she is the president of a Major League Soccer club. “It’s usually the first match when it becomes a reality,” she replied. “The goosebumps [will] come during the first match, and [seeing] all the fans and it all come together, that’s when it [will hit] me.”
Kicking down doors, dunking through glass ceilings, and creating the pathways for more representation in the executive offices are all Danita Johnson has done during her career. Black history aren’t just the stories about past athletes, matches, or events. Black history is being written every day. Danita Johnson is a walking example of Black excellence that ensures that history books are written and rewritten everyday, and that can be taken beyond February 28th.
For more Black History Month stories, check out our Black History Month hub. We will be bringing a story each day this month to highlight some of the biggest moments in black American and world soccer history.