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Pro Sports Reform

Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson

There was a time—it wasn’t long ago—when “off-field issues” was a term of choice. It referred to incidents that took place, occasionally, away from fields of play. But those incidents are so pronounced these days—so frequent and so explosive—that “off-field” doesn’t capture the significance and impact of what’s going on.

At least one sports leader has it pegged right: Bud Selig, Major League Baseball commissioner. “Baseball is a social institution. It has social obligations and responsibilities,” Selig has said repeatedly, and not just recently. And while Selig’s authority applies only to baseball his assertion stretches beyond that sport. The National Football League (NFL), an operation that’s on the national hot seat, certainly should take note.

Let’s face it, though: we need more than a term to describe today’s reality context. The challenge is demonstrating what it means to act like a social institution. Sadly, a good share of action to date is feeble—underwhelming, sometimes pathetic—outrageously misaligned with the nature of underlying problems facing professional sports.

Want proof?

When the NFL created a new position—vice president for social responsibility—the outcome seemed more self-protective charade than meaningful reform. Rather than turn to an experienced, respected, and nationally-known outsider, the NFL Commissioner named an early-career NFL insider, an employee sans substantial career dossier. It was a weak move, coming at a time when the country was looking to the NFL for bold leadership, to act large.

And when a crisis hit the Minnesota Vikings (with the Adrian Peterson case, alleged child abuse) there was one response from team leadership about it would do, then another, both within hours. The flip-flopping screamed: “We aren’t sure what to do!”

What’s the really sad thing about all this? Acting like a social institution is eminently achievable. How?

The first step is for league authorities and team owners—in all professional leagues—to make social responsibility a priority.

The first step is for league authorities and team owners—in all professional leagues—to make social responsibility a priority. That commitment needs to apply to behaviors in the league offices and to team administrations, not just to the players. Why? Consider what has happened recently with the Clippers and Hawks (racial insensitivity by owners and management), Colts (the owner’s drug abuse), and Washington NFL’s franchise (never-ending “naming issue”).

Then authorities need to hire experienced hands, people who know what they’re doing—how to design and implement meaningful programs to achieve socially responsible outcomes. Set time targets for getting initiatives in place. Give them the authority and tools to make their work count. Then let them loose.

What will they do? They’ll draft plans. They’ll run pilot tests and revise things as needed. They’ll put full-scale efforts into action, evaluate progress, and report on the outcomes. They’ll revise the efforts as needed and make ongoing improvements.

What about oversight? Scrap the concept of having programs conceived (and then directed) by a vice president who reports directly to a commissioner. Put oversight in the hands of national-level blue ribbon committees, one for each professional sport—composed of advocates for the public good, citizens who don’t have employment or other ties to the professional leagues. And there needs to be a direct communication line to the commissioners.

On what will they focus? Sadly, you don’t need to hunt around. Problems are a matter public record: Spousal abuse. Racism. Sexual preference intolerance. Gender insensitivity and bias. Child abuse. Drug abuse. Those are six areas … for starters.

And Dave Zirin said it well in his recent LA Progressive article: these issues are connected. Don’t view them as stand-alone matters. And, while you’re at, make sure issues are treated clinically: explore causal and associational links, necessary to understand why these things are happening. There’s a lot to be said about becoming students of social ills, pathologies, and challenges.

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Deciding how to organize programs isn’t complex either. There are three, interconnected phases:

  • Information-Education (to reduce frequency and magnitude of occurrence)
  • Intervention (to deal with issues when they arise, including having support programs in place for offenders and families), and
  • Penalties-with-Teeth (for infractions).

What do we need to make all of this happen? Leadership. Socially responsible leadership. What does that mean? It involves a strong and abiding commitment to serving the public good. Socially responsible leaders don’t adulterate the meaning of “for the public good” by filtering it through organizational self-interest.

If the Penn State tragedy has taught us anything it’s this: nothing good—and an incalculable amount of pain—comes when an institution puts organizational self-interest ahead of public good. Danger lurks from “Protecting the Brand,” a mantra that's adopted by “leaders” who aren’t, even though they occupy leadership positions. They’re “institutional operatives.” We have too many of them around these days, their viability aided and abetted by self-serving boards.

The bottom line is clear: managing organizational affairs isn’t leading, and no amount of management-worship can elevate management to leadership status. Peter Drucker said it years ago: it’s the difference between doing the right things (leadership) and doing the things right (management).

That distinction between leadership and management is important today especially in terms of how sports—of all kinds and at all levels—address the increasingly onerous consequences of head injuries. Just a few days ago a new study was released: 76 of 79 (96%) of deceased NFL players were found to have brain disease. The percentage is far greater than what had been anticipated previously.

How will sports leaders respond? What will they do? What we can’t have—and I fear it will be the NCAA’s primary response—is plausible deniability, arguing that it’s impossible to pinpoint when brain injuries occurred, especially when players have engaged in play for many years and at many levels. What we need is leadership for the public—not just for the corporate—good.

Doing the right thing.

That’s what Branch Rickey did years ago. When Rickey sought to integrate baseball in the 1940s, he knew that it would be good for the game, but he also knew it was best for society. It took fortitude, strategy, and persistence to make it happen. Rickey did the right thing (leadership) and, to pull it off successfully, he did the thing right (management). It stands as one of the best examples in American history of the leadership-management interface.

And what’s critical about leadership? Its exercise never goes out of style. Consider this. The opening Rickey enabled has been closing in baseball, not by prejudice, but by waning interest. Fewer than 10% of MLB baseball players are African Americans these days; and, according to a recent poll, only 7% of African Americans list baseball as the sport they follow most.

Enter the Washington Nationals baseball club. The organization spent nearly $18 million recently to build and open a Youth Baseball Academy. The expressed purpose is to introduce baseball to a diverse set of youth—to teach them the game and to encourage them to play.

What the Nationals are doing is good for the game. And it’s good for society, too. It’s both-and.


Bud Selig has it right—at least by name and in concept: sports is a social institution. That’s the right thing. The challenge, now, is doing the thing right … over and over and over again.

Frank Fear