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Winds of change are blowing in sports. What’s causing it? Domestic assault. Child abuse. Infractions. Cheating.

Take the NFL. “Roger Goodell Looks to the Future, but Troubles Cloud the View, reads The New York Times headline (2/15/15). “The problems he faces—from off-field violence to team malfeasance—are stubborn and complicated,” is the article’s lead.

Challenges exist in youth sports, too. Little League Baseball, the sport’s governing body, recently stripped Chicago’s Jackie Robinson West of its 2014 international championship. Program leaders revamped geographic boundaries to recruit unauthorized players and, then, tried to cover up their fraud.Take college sports. Syracuse has initiated self-probation for irregularities in its basketball program, including shortcomings associated with acting on the results of players’ drug tests. An independent study done at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill found evidence of academic fraud associated with athletes’ academic performance—a pattern that persisted unchecked for nearly twenty years. And two Vanderbilt football players were found guilty of campus sexual assault (gang rape).

There are sports rules and regulations to addresses issues like these. But compliance and penalty systems—important as they are—aren’t enough. And neither is the response: “We’re clean! It’s not happening here.”

Let’s state it directly: It’s not just about avoiding wrong. It’s also about doing right—of being socially responsible.

How might social responsibility change the face of a sport? Take major college basketball as an example.

Change starts with elevated social consciousness, which is the antecedent to social responsibility. Socially conscious athletic administrators don’t separate what’s happening in society with what’s taking place in athletics. That’s because sports aren’t apart from society; they are a part of society. And while there are positive examples of socially responsible action in sports (e.g., the PGA’s “First Tee” program), what’s happening overall isn’t as pervasive and extensive as it needs to be.Get your remote some night, sit in front of your TV, and channel-switch games for a couple of hours. What will you see? At least 70% of the players on the floor at any one time will be African-Americans. Now, look at the benches. How many African-American head coaches do you see? You might see one, perhaps two, all night. Finally, look at who’s watching the games–the composition of arena crowds. What’s the prevailing demographic? You’ll see mostly White fans in the stands. It adds up to a blatant disconnect in big-time college basketball: there’s mostly white management with mostly black players playing in front of mostly white fans.

There’s one thing we know for sure: society needs more from athletics than a bunch of teams playing games.

So what needs to happen? Teams and sports governing authorities need to take a hard look at athletics through the lens of social consciousness. They need to ask: How are we doing? What can we do to be more socially responsible?
We need to take the same approach to improving responses to social and cultural issues in athletics.

Probing questions like those are asked all the time when it comes to competing. In response we add better players. Make coaching changes. Adjust offenses and defenses. Improve facilities. We do those things, and more, to improve on-field performance. It’s expected. It’s demanded. It’s The Holy Grail of sports.

Fans aren’t off the hook, either. Fans need to demand more from their teams. Winning isn’t enough. The good news is that I’m hearing more and more friends raise that issue. Jim Chaney phrased it well recently: “It’s becoming harder and harder to enjoy a sport (NFL in his case) that makes you feel ashamed and a little dirty in doing so.”

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How can we raise the bar in sports? It will come by expanding the definition of “success.” One pathway is to adapt templates used in business and finance. “Success’ is measured in multiple ways in both domains—not in a conventional way only.

Business: The conventional bottom line in business is profits-profitability. But more and more companies are restructuring operations to manage what’s called “The Triple Bottom Line.” That means giving attention simultaneously to three things, “the three Ps,” namely, Profits, People, and Planet. A tri-focal attention allows companies to manage progress related to such things as financial health, equitable compensation systems, and “carbon footprint.”

Finance: Return-on-investment—the gold standard—is still important, but many Americans are making socially responsible investments by putting personal values to work financially. Socially responsible investing means screening companies for investment choices (e.g., no to investing in companies that manufacture guns, and yes to investing in companies that generate clean energy). Socially responsible investing isn’t a matter of choosing values over financial returns; it fuses values and returns.

What might an expanded focus on success look like in sports? It would involve tending explicitly to multiple outcomes. Here’s one rendition:

  • Winning (winning percentage and championships won)
  • Integrity (competing by the rules and playing games fairly)
  • Social responsibility (addressing social issues surrounding the game)
  • Community responsiveness (“giving back” to people & communities that support the team).

It’s not as though this doesn’t exist today. A number of teams and leagues have stepped up (e.g., the philanthropic Jimmy Fund established in 1953 by MLB’s Boston Red Sox). It’s a matter of accelerating and expanding the coverage—of having teams and leagues be accountable for multi-pronged results, across sports, teams, and leagues.

What does the Report Card look like today? Social responsibility gets the lowest grade. Why? Social responsibility isn’t about “traditional stuff” in sports, things like game plans and the business of sports. Social responsibility is about the sport-society intersection. It’s about who we are, what we value, and what we stand for—as a people—and how those stances translate in sports.

Stepping up to the challenge will require a new breed of athletic administrators—those adept at making teams competitive, managing finances, AND raising the bar of social responsibility.

We’ve had great successes in the past. Baseball integration and basketball de-segregation come to mind. We need bold action again—with a more expansive response this time round.

Who will set the standard in redefining what it means to be “good” in sports? Will it be a team? A league? A sport? Will it be pro? College? We’ll see.


There’s one thing we know for sure: society needs more from athletics than a bunch of teams playing games.

Frank Fear
The Sports Column