We’ve got a big event next week, folks! I have spent the last six months co-organizing Playing the Long Game with Jim Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Rooney Consulting. Presented by Rooney Consulting, the Sport Management program at UT, and the HJ Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports, Playing the Long Game is dedicated to meaningful conversations on the future of the sports industry.
We’ve got an absolutely killer lineup, starting with a keynote address on April 12th featuring former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, one of the most influential figures in the history of American sports. We’ll then move on to four panel discussions, two each on April 13th and 15th. Topics include sports after COVID, innovation and the long term future of the industry, diversity, and culture and ethics in the workplace. Some panelists of note:
Swin Cash-Canal, former NCAA,WNBA, and Olympic champion, current VP of Basketball Operations for the New Orleans Pelicans
Paxton K. Baker, minority owner of the Washington Nationals and a long-time business leader in media and entertainment
Jeff Miller, NFL Executive Vice President for Communications, Public Affairs, and Policy
Larry Miller, Chairman of the Jordan Brand Advisory Board (Nike), former President of Jordan Brand, former President of the Portland Trailblazers
Sam Rapoport, NFL Senior Director of Diversity and Inclusion
Head to our website to register for the event, it’s free and open to the public, via Zoom. Our vision is to make this annual event, one that will be live and in-person in Austin starting next year. While focused on the pressing issues that face students entering the sports industry in uncertain times, I trust that anyone interested in the business and future of sports will come away with much to think about. Finally, we plan to “play the long game” beyond the big event, building a community rooted in our vision of long term success and meaningful impact, in sports and beyond. Conference registrants will receive a monthly newsletter, featuring the latest from our panelists and hosts, unique content, networking opportunities and more.
North Korea is out of the Olympics. As the article notes, there’s a twofold explanation: covid-exposure fears and a rebuke of the opportunity for diplomatic conversations, sending a message to both Seoul and DC. This is decidedly a step backwards after the seeming progress at the previous winter games and in-line with the state’s recent weapons tests.
Xi Jinping has his sights set on soccer. Despite several attempts over the years, China has never really ascended on the global soccer stage. With a strong foothold in Olympic sports, gaining relevance in world soccer is an obvious step for China, but of course it’s easier said than done. But things can change if the Chinese government follows to through on the vision to throw big money and big efforts into the sport. Competitive success is complicated, but hosting a World Cup and taking a bigger role in FIFA seem inevitable.
A note from the editor: I’m tremendously excited to share this guest post by Scott Jedlicka, a dear friend and sport management professor at Washington State University. I find it challenging and thought-provoking in all the right ways. And it’s timely, coming not just when most of us surely thought the pandemic would be a memory, but also on the eve of the Final Four, when most of us will be engaging in just the sort of sports consumption (and, for some, the internal conflict) that Scott expounds on here. I hope you’ll read it, maybe a couple times, and let us know what you think. This is exactly the sort of work I had hoped to share when I started this site a year ago and I’m so thankful to Scott for the time, thought, and effort he put into this work. Finally, a special thank you to Andrew Hao, Alec Hurley, and George Kioussis for their insightful and prompt comments and suggestions on Scott’s early draft.–Tolga
In the June 2020 issue of The Atlantic, George Packer’s bluntly titled “We Are Living in a Failed State” recounts the United States’ woefully inept response to COVID-19. While much of Packer’s withering criticism is leveled specifically at the Trump administration and its utter inability (or refusal) to deal with the unfolding crisis, he also artfully captures the social, cultural, and economic environment that exacerbated these failures of leadership:
This was the American landscape that lay open to the virus: in prosperous cities, a class of globally connected desk workers dependent on a class of precarious and invisible service workers; in the countryside, decaying communities in revolt against the modern world; on social media, mutual hatred and endless vituperation among different camps; in the economy, even with full employment, a large and growing gap between triumphant capital and beleaguered labor; in Washington, an empty government led by a con man and his intellectually bankrupt party; around the country, a mood of cynical exhaustion, with no vision of a shared identity or future.
All of this is accurate and not very optimistic, of course, but the final clause is what really gives Packer’s description a dire tone: “no vision of a shared identity or future.” Packer is describing an empire on its last legs, a riven populace bereft of solidarity and unable to imagine a departure from the status quo. He is describing a culture in decline.
Insofar as it is an indicator of “normal” life, sport plays a revealing role in this denouement. The approaching end of the pandemic is unlikely to reverse the trajectory on which America finds itself. At the same time, the resumption of major sporting events, the familiar cycle of ritualized celebrations reliably marking the passage of time, will no doubt be heralded by many as a positive and welcome development. The critics and reformers will continue to stridently draw attention to sport’s shortcomings, of course, but—as was the case before the pandemic—the lion’s share of this criticism will either be filtered through various identity-based lenses or reduce sport to just another battlefront in the war of labor against capital. While these approaches are not without value, they tend to share the same contradictory and self-defeating endpoint.
For those concerned with issues of social equity, sport’s value lies primarily in its status as a visible platform for raising awareness. Consequently, sport is considered to be a distinct realm of public life only to the extent that it engages an audience that might otherwise reject considerations (or be wholly ignorant) of social justice. When professional or college athletes engage in various forms of protest, or when injustices occur in sport itself, it is meaningful precisely because it demands the attention of those who would prefer to look away. In this view, the dialogues, conversations, et al. that are ostensibly initiated or advanced through athletes refusing to “shut up and dribble” will necessarily lead in the direction of broader social critique: of the factors underpinning racism, misogyny, state violence, exploitation and abuse, and so on. It is at this point, unfortunately, that this critical approach to sport tends to go off the rails. Those whose politics position them in opposition to the causes championed by athletes will inevitably conclude that sport is being “politicized,” the response to which is typically to point out that sport—as a social practice—is an unavoidably politicized activity. This is a largely irreconcilable stalemate, as the two competing claims are generated from dissimilar premises; the “keep politics out of sport” crowd believes (however disingenuously) that there is something about sport that makes it essentially different from other spheres of social life, while its opponents decidedly do not.
Unfortunately, by denying that sport is anything other than a mirror of society, even those sympathetic to the causes associated with “politicized” sport reach a similar impasse. If one acknowledges the existence of intractable problems that are manifested in sport and in society (the latter of which, again, are often emphasized in sport through athlete activism), they are faced with two general paths to resolution. The first, common to many reform efforts in sport, is the “bad apples” diagnosis: that the problems of sport and society can be largely attributed to the negligent or malfeasant behavior of individuals. At the end of this path lies an easily implemented but rarely effective set of solutions that typically involves some combination of education, awareness-raising, and selecting the “right” leaders. The second path points in the direction of structural change, but the solutions on offer here are less obvious and (for most) emphatically less palatable. Those who pursue this line of critique must, at some point, confront the reality that if sport is a socially constructed activity (political in the way that all realms of social life are political), and if the causes of the problems with which they are concerned are rooted in the structures of society itself, then true reform will necessarily require fundamental changes to sport. In other words, the conditions that make sport a useful arena for social advocacy are also very likely the conditions that create the issues that require advocacy in the first place. Many who champion sport’s utility as a platform for awareness raising are less enthusiastic about setting fire to the stage.
A not-too-scientific, but potentially interesting addendum to Tuesday’s NCAA post.
When I watch college sports, I like to pull up the team rosters to see where everyone hails from, learn interesting trivia, etc. As I’ve been doing this during the basketball tournaments, I started noticing some things on women’s rosters that I think are positive indicators of the overall growth and investment in women’s sports:
Rosters are less local. Historically, colleges tended to recruit from their local base. Football and basketball powerhouses were the exception, but even they relied heavily on in-state talent. Women’s teams also tended to be overwhelmingly local. Not the case anymore: these teams are built from all across the country and, in another positive sign, across the world.
Transfers, transfers everywhere, as far as the eye can see. This trend has been accelerated by the rule-changes allowing graduate transfers immediate eligibility, but also to a lesser extent by greater case-by-case flexibility on undergrad transfer eligibility.
I’ve noticed this across many of the rosters I pulled up as I watched games, but Arizona’s Final Four squad serves as a good example. Of the 14 players on the team, eight are Americans, but only one hails from Arizona. The six internationals come from Canada, Spain (x2), Australia, Latvia, and Turkey (woot woot!). Four are transfers.
So what does this all mean? Again, this isn’t a particularly rigorous analysis, but I think the diversity here says much about the increasing seriousness of women’s sports, both in the US and abroad. To develop this level of talent requires investment, as does recruiting on the national and global scale. To be sure, the internet has made scouring the globe that much easier, but you still need dedicated staff to conduct research and get players on board. Interpreting the transfer tend is a bit hazier, but again, it takes resources to pull off and that players are keen to continue their careers suggests that they find value in the opportunity to keep playing with the potential of WNBA or foreign professional prospects.
I may be overthinking this, but I think there’s something here.