Skip to content
Career
January 9, 2024

The Play Maker

Written by:

Not many people have as impressive a resume as Christina Norman. Former CEO of the Oprah Winfrey Network. Past president of MTV. One-time president of VH1. Now Head of Content for arguably one of the most influential cultural platforms around—the 450 members of the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA).

Christina Norman is helping NBA stars show the world they are “more than just an athlete.”
But ask this seasoned creative executive included in The Hollywood Reporter’s “Power 100 Women in Entertainment” list how she would describe herself, and she will say, “A work in progress.” The answer reflects the unwillingness to be boxed in that has inspired some of her groundbreaking work. “What I love to be able to bring to what I do is part creativity, business, experience, innovation and curiosity, and push that forward into hopefully finding something new.”

Among those new things she has been part of was the envelope-pushing work in the early days of MTV, which included airing one of the first public service announcements about condom usage. “Back then, we called it prosocial work,” she says of the advocacy initiative. “That was a big deal for us to do that.” Then there was the stand against hate crimes; after the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man, in Fort Collins, Colorado, MTV went dark for a whole day. “We just scrolled the names and victims of hate crimes across the country,” Norman recalls.

At the NBPA—which she describes as the “labor” to the National Basketball Association’s “management”—she leads the effort to maximize the players’ potential impact, both for themselves and for others. To those who might question why such well-paid athletes need a union, she says to take a look at history. “You’ll find a time when, especially the Black players in the union, had to go around the back door to get into a hotel. They couldn’t stay in the hotel where the white players did; they weren’t paid equally.”

For Norman, her NBPA role is both a responsibility and an opportunity—a responsibility to the players to help them make the most of their time in the game and an opportunity to leverage the sport’s reach for social impact.

“This is a great moment that they have as athletes, but how are they preparing themselves for what’s next and seeing all the opportunities that can exist now?” she says. “Our goal is to help them see how they can monetize their name, image and likeness rights, and to create opportunities for them to monetize all of their other rights, for them to be involved in content, for them to be involved in licensing deals . . . ” As a storyteller, she wants to help “change the way that the world sees these men and sees what they can contribute, sees them as more than just an athlete.”

‘MORE THAN A GAME’

Back in the day, “it used to be that only one or two players had a platform,” Norman notes. “Now, because of social media, every player has a platform and they’re seeing what their influence can be.” Norman’s creative program at the NBPA, officially called THINK450, is not a cookie-cutter program.

“NOW, BECAUSE OF SOCIAL MEDIA, EVERY PLAYER HAS A PLATFORM AND THEY’RE SEEING WHAT THEIR INFLUENCE CAN BE.”

“Everyone can have their own path and has their own possibilities,” she says. “So, what works for one doesn’t necessarily work for another.” Norman mentions the Brooklyn Nets’ Patty Mills—“an incredible advocate; he uses his platform for all sorts of good.” They have done some work together and are having talks around some kids’ programming ideas, she says. “I’m like, ‘Let’s talk about this. Let’s figure out how we can use this platform to spread what you want to do.’”

As part of her work, Norman has a Christmas movie in development and also wants to do game shows. “My job is to put possibilities in front of players who may not think of themselves as creative in that way. I can help expose players to those possibilities, be a resource, be a partner, bring them in and hopefully we can all benefit.”

One brainchild project has been Game Change Game, a two-hour documentary that premiered at the recent Tribeca Film Festival. It offers a behind-the-scenes look at how the basketball league coped during the turbulent summer of 2020 in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, when the season was played out in a lockdown bubble.

It was “an incredible storytelling moment,” Norman says. “We follow the players through that time of them, in many ways, saving sports—like, none of us had anything to do, and then all of a sudden there’s relief, there’s something to celebrate, there’s something to be a part of. And the fact that they stood up and asked for accountability and used their moment to not just be about a game, but to be about something more than a game… ”

While the documentary is intended to be not just a record of a moment but part of an ongoing movement, not everybody sees it that way. Norman notes the response from one distributor to whom she pitched the idea: “‘Oh, aren’t we moving on from that now?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m not, and neither are our players…’ They’re of this community. They represent this community and they really stepped up in a way that is leading this community.”

“YOU CANNOT HAVE IT ALL AT THE SAME TIME, AND YOU CERTAINLY CANNOT HAVE IT ALL WITHOUT A LOT OF HELP.”

‘PATH OF DISCOVERY’

Norman grew up in the South Bronx, and her Caribbean parents (Dad from the Virgin Islands, Mom from Puerto Rico) were “pretty traditional people” who weren’t very comfortable with her pursuing a freelance career in the entertainment industry. “Like, ‘You’re not gonna go to someplace every day?’ ‘What do you mean that job you’re on ends tomorrow?’ ‘Did you get fired?’ No, we’re just done.”

She cut her teeth working on television commercials, then got a gig on the indie Black horror film Def by Temptation, starring Samuel L. Jackson. “That was really my start of feeling that I could actually forge a career in this industry.”

Plans changed a bit when she and her husband, Charles Hunt, who also works in the industry, had a baby. “At that point, it was like, well, we both can’t be freelance; somebody needs to go and get a real job and get health insurance.” Having freelanced for MTV, she won a position in the production management department.

Those were exciting times—the cable industry was new, and people were trying new things, which “started me on a path of discovery that I didn’t even think was possible at the time. I was able to maneuver a little more freely. There were a lot of women in positions of authority then, a lot of people who were willing to take a chance on this emerging industry.”

In those early days she worked with a lot of up-and-coming names, such as Chris Rock, Ben Stiller, and Adam Sandler. “MTV had a unique way of speaking to the audience,” she remembers. “We didn’t talk down to the audience; we spoke to the audience. [They] expected a high level of creativity from the work that we did.”

It was while she was at MTV that Norman’s leadership talents began to emerge in addition to her creative ones. She realized the need not only to have a good idea, but then also have the ability “to figure out how to make it happen. And that’s a skill that I think I carry forward with me in everything that I do.”

Ultimately, Norman was appointed the network’s head of marketing, from where she was tapped for the president’s desk at rival VH1 (later returning to MTV in the same role). There was an element of risk in the move—the network’s ratings were down, and it had “kind of lost its relevance and its way with the audience.” It was “a very white brand,” Norman says. “I think Mariah Carey was like the most they would do at the time. I saw an opportunity to take this nostalgia halo that VH1 had and open the aperture and make it more accessible to people.”

Widening that audience included introducing shows like Flavor of Love featuring former Public Enemy member Flava Flav. “There were things like Hip Hop Honors [an annual awards show] that we really were able to claim that nostalgia halo, but also broaden the audience in terms of who the brand was relevant to.”

At VH1, she also recognized the importance of being a representative. “We all want to be seen, heard, and understood. And when someone sees you and can understand your experience, it’s a very powerful thing. And I think that was one of the things that I was able to bring to the brand… For me to have had the success that I did, and for that success to have been rooted in Black culture, I think was really impactful for a lot of people.”

‘SOMEONE SEES ME’

Norman acknowledges the people who were a big encouragement to her along the way—names like Judy McGrath, former CEO of MTV Networks; Edith Diaz, her elementary school music teacher; and Les Garland, MTV’s original programming chief.

She recalls McGrath once telling her, “‘You have to find a way to make your own way. Don’t wait for somebody else to figure out how to use you. Figure out how to use yourself.’ And that was very impactful for me, because I think, like many people, you’re kind of waiting for someone to see you, right? And it’s like, no, you’ve got to figure out how to make people see you.”

Garland, she says, was always open to new ideas and pushing the envelope. “He just loved the spirit of innovation and would always push you to think differently and bigger.”

And Diaz? “She made me feel seen at a time when, as a kid, you often don’t feel seen, right? You’re part of a group, you’re part of a mass, but she made me feel seen.”

Christina Norman: My WayMaker
My Titi Lillian was the first person in my family who held a corporate job. She got up every morning and went to work at Colgate-Palmolive, where she had a career, not just a job. She also instilled in me the love of reading. We would spend hours at the New York Public Library, where she would let me roam and find whatever caught my interest. It was a world that opened up my imagination and showed me there was a bigger world out there. To this day, books are my refuge.

From an interview with Louis Carr

This article was originally published in the Fall 2022 issue of WayMaker Journal.