|Sport and Society in America
By Cliff Christl
The parameters and challenges for the Sport & Society in America academic conference, co-sponsored by St. Norbert College and the Green Bay Packers, were spelled out during the morning session on the first day.
Tom Kunkel, college president, noted during his introductory remarks: “Sports and society is a big, big subject. And as you’ll see from our program, our symposium is going to cover a very broad waterfront.”
Shortly thereafter, in his opening address to the conference, Paul Tagliabue, former commissioner of the National Football League, began by saying that “I am certainly impressed – if not intimidated – by the wide scope and variety of topics that you will be addressing in the next several days.”
|Paul Tagliabue brought with him the two footballs that bookended his career: the official NFL football bearing his name and a "street football," made from tightly-rolled newspaper and electrical tape, like the ones that he played with as a boy in New Jersey.
The conference, held in late May both on the St. Norbert campus and at Lambeau Field, turned sports into a three-day intellectual scrimmage where research and ideas were kicked around by a lineup that included everyone from heavyweight speakers in the sports profession to doctoral candidates; and it all seemed to work just as the game plan called for.
In addition to Tagliabue, the headline speakers included Robert Kustra, president of Boise State University; Carl Vogel ’79, one of the founders of Dish Network and owner of the St. Louis Blues (of the National Hockey League); and Kevin Blackistone, the high-profile national sports columnist and journalism teacher at the University of Maryland.
|Sports reporter Jessie Garcia moderated a session on sports communication.
There also were more than 50 seminars held concurrently during the first and third day, and almost six hours of roundtable discussions held on the second day.
The topics were as wide-ranging as promised. Seminars covered race and gender; the economics, psychology and sociology of sports; ethics; youth sports; and more. Panels on sports law and psychology complemented roundtables on the business and civic impact of professional sports.
The simple plan behind this behemoth of a project, according to Kevin Quinn (Economics), director of the conference, was to mesh academic scholars with real-world practitioners and to create a forum for them to express their sometimes diverging views.
“They are two groups that don’t really interact that much,” he said. “That’s kind of surprising. The practitioners are pretty sure the eggheads are all wrong about stuff all the time. Eggheads like me are pretty sure we know better. And we’re just interested in publishing our papers, academic journals and that sort of thing. I think there’s some value in rubbing elbows with the two of them.”
Others agreed. The Packers not only co-sponsored the event, but also actively participated. Among those sitting on roundtable sessions were Betsy Mitchell, the NFL team’s vice president of organizational/staff development; Jason Wied, its vice president of administration/general counsel; and Craig Benzel, its director of marketing and corporate sales.
“A lot of people say sports gets too much emphasis. But right or wrong, it has a big impact on society,” said Mark Murphy, who as president of the Packers joined Kunkel in delivering an introductory speech. “And to be able to study it, measured with academic rigor, is good for us.”
The conference attracted more than 250 people, fueled hours of discussion and debate, and, no doubt, sent many of the attendees home better informed and highly energized to do more work in their fields of expertise.
While the practitioners and academics might have had different purposes for attending the conference – practitioners might have been more inclined to be seeking answers and solutions, and academics to deepen their knowledge – the exercise was essentially the same for both groups.
“This is study,” said Murphy. He falls into the practitioner category in his current post, as he did in his first post-graduate job as a hard-hitting safety for eight years with the Washington Redskins, but he also knows his way around college campuses. Murphy, a Colgate grad who holds an M.B.A. in finance from American University and a law degree from Georgetown University, spent a total of 16 years as a director of athletics at both Colgate and Northwestern University.
It was Murphy who lured Tagliabue to the conference. Tagliabue, commissioner of the NFL from 1989 until 2006 and a senior counsel in a New York- and Washington, D.C.-based law firm, titled his opening address “Sport in American Society: Leaders Who Excel for Humanity.”
Tagliabue’s salient point was that sports will need strong leaders to step forward over the remainder of this century and he urged the students in his audience, in particular, to strive to meet the call.
He talked about how coaches such as Eddie Robinson, Joe Paterno and John Thompson, and athletes such as Wilma Rudolph, Roberto Clemente and Billie Jean King “had a catalyzing effect on society … by excelling in their particular interests and vocations in ways that make a larger social impact.” At the same time, he noted that one didn’t need to play sports to be a leader in the field.
“I don’t think there’s enough of a focus on just talking about it, understanding what leadership is, understanding how to create opportunities to lead,” he said. “Leadership is a complicated thing.”
He put it another way: “Fantasy football is great, but we need a hell of alot more people worried about things in sports other than fantasy football.”
Making the connection
|Carl Vogel ’79, co-founder of Dish Network, spoke at Lambeau's Legends Club room on "Sports Rights Fees: The Financial Engine of the Sports Business."
Each of the three keynote speakers had some connection to St. Norbert or the college’s senior administration. Vogel, a 1979 graduate, won the Distinguished Alumni Award in Business in 2002. His speech, titled “Sports Rights Fees: The Financial Engine of the Sports Business,” focused on how the growth rates of those fees have outpaced all other industries.
Kustra and St. Norbert’s Michael Marsden knew each other from their days at Eastern Kentucky University. The Sport & Society conference was the brainchild of Marsden and a culmination of his service as dean and academic vice president of the college. (Marsden participated as an emcee.)
Hear Carl Vogel ’79 on sports rights fees. >>MORE
Kustra talked about the challenges university presidents face in warding off the threat of professionalism in their intercollegiate athletic programs. And he railed against the unfairness of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) in college football, which favors the teams in the six major conferences at the expense of highly successful programs, such as Boise State’s, that compete in lower-profile conferences.
He said the BCS should work the same way as the NCAA basketball tournament, where a school such as Butler has an equal opportunity to play for a national championship.
Kunkel hired Blackistone at Maryland just before leaving the university to become president at St. Norbert.
Blackistone recounted how a mentor of his in the newspaper business thought he was abandoning a noble cause for a trivial one when he moved from news to the sports department 20 years ago at The Dallas Morning News. But Blackistone countered that “there has been no stronger magnifying glass in this country on an issue” than the one sports has placed on race.
“The civil rights movement was an orchestrated human drama with a purpose, and it worked,” said Blackistone. “But sports has been an orchestrated and spontaneous movement toward change on racial issues, and it, too, has worked.”
To have such a stellar cast of speakers talking about such weighty issues, in Quinn’s mind, was a real testament to St. Norbert and the stature of some of its leaders.
“I think what it shows – and I think alums would be interested in this – is that their alma mater has long reaches into all kinds of worlds, not just sports,” said Quinn. “If I were an alum of St. Norbert, I’d be pretty proud of the fact that the people at my institution have sufficiently good connections with these people.”
Another highlight of the conference was the luncheon speech given by the Rev. Rowland De Peaux, O.Praem., ’48 (Modern Foreign Languages, Emeritus). De Peaux lived in Sensenbrenner Hall with the Packers when the legendary Vince Lombardi was coaching in the 1960s. He knew the Lombardi family on a personal level and spiced his talk with enchanting tales about his encounters with Vince and his wife Marie.
De Peaux remembered as though it were yesterday the time he was working in his language lab in the basement of Sensenbrenner when Lombardi stormed in from another room and confronted him before realizing his mistake.
“Vince heard some noise and thought it was a spy,” said De Peaux. “He came in and said, ‘What the heck are … Oh Father, I’m sorry.’ He was ready to grab me by the chest. I was quite startled.”
Tackling the issues
As much stature as Tagliabue brought to the conference, as smooth and candid as was Kustra’s talk, as engaging as was Vogel and as passionate as was Blackistone, there was more. Just as in any good lineup, it was not only the stars who scored all the points.
Many of the speakers in the smaller breakout groups had impressive résumés of their own. And it was in the classrooms in Bemis and Cofrin Hall on campus where some lesser-known presenters wowed their smaller audiences.
“What’s interesting for me is that I’m working on my dissertation, so to see professionals in sport and hear them present their papers and to be able to relate to what they’re working on, but also to hear about the different experiences they’ve had in sports, has made this conference unique,” said April Arvan, a faculty member in exercise science and sports studies at Lakeland College.
Mark Rosentraub is a professor of sport management at the University of Michigan and one of the leading sports economists in the country. He talked about how many American cities have relied on sports for economic development. Dave Robinson, a star linebacker when the Packers won three straight NFL championships in the 1960s, conducted a session in which he talked about his recently published book,” The Lombardi Legacy: Thirty People Who Were Touched by Greatness.”
|Packers great Dave Robinson (left) meets sports journalist Kevin Blackistone. Blackistone, who gave a keynote address on “Sports and Race,” was just about to moderate a session on racial issues in sports.
Gregory Bond, who recently earned his Ph.D. in the department of history at the University of Wisconsin, delivered a groundbreaking talk. Using pictures and other visual aids, he showed there was an unwritten agreement that prevented African-Americans from playing basketball in the Big Ten into the 1950s, even though they were allowed to play other sports in the conference.
Katie Schweighofer, a doctoral candidate at Indiana University, presented on female athletes and the gendering of sport.
Her thought-provoking, strongly worded paper explored “the images and stereotypes” of female athletes. “Cultural discourse surrounding the female athlete has always centered on sexuality and gender,” Schweighofer told her audience.
Using the 1999 U.S. women’s national soccer team that won the World Cup as an example, Schweighofer examined how superstar Brandi Chastain was forced to backtrack and explain that ripping off her jersey in celebration – a soccer tradition – was nothing more than a spontaneous reaction after some in the media had interpreted it as an “inappropriately sexual” act. Schweighofer also noted how articles that mentioned captain Mia Hamm invariably mentioned her high-school sweetheart husband at the time.
“Players on the team with short spiky hair or without engagement rings or boyfriends clearly visible receive little to no media attention,” Schweighofer said.
Peter Weiss, who is working on a master’s degree in liberal studies at St. Norbert, offered a dispassionate but insightful look at the Packers-Brett Favre divorce. He cited research during his presentation that showed rabid fans reacted the way they did to Favre’s decision to join the Minnesota Vikings because their very identities were threatened. They actually had suffered a blow to their self-esteem.
Read Peter Weiss on Favre fans. >>MORE
Bob Biebel, former basketball coach at Xavier High School in Appleton, Wis., and now at St. Mary’s University of Winona, Minn., spoke about athletic fundraising with the same verve that characterized his locker-room pep talks. Indiana University’s Jesse Steinfeldt, former three-sport athlete at Yale University, gave a similarly animated presentation about athletes and bullying.
There were presenters from Duke, Skidmore, Bryn Mawr, Texas A&M and Franciscan University of Steubenville, as well as the Mayo Clinic, and even a sports editor from Playboy magazine; it was truly a cross-section of people from many parts of the country. And one roundtable session, headed by James Schmitt ’80, mayor of Green Bay, focused on the Packers’ impact on the city.
The Packers’ Mitchell headed a panel on sports psychology, a panel that also included Sara Hickman, psychologist for the New York Jets, and Frank Cummings of Sport Psychology Consultants. They discussed the challenges faced by professional athletes – life in a fishbowl, the expectations of family and friends, sudden wealth and uncertain futures – and how teams have become proactive in addressing those issues.
The panel and roundtables were among events hosted at Lambeau Field, a location that was particularly appreciated. Those who attended had the opportunity to take a private tour of the stadium and the Packers Hall of Fame.
Planning has already begun for the Sport & Society 2012 conference.