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A League of Fans Special Feature

Dr. Richard Lapchick

Richard Lapchick is a human rights activist, sports studies educator, author and sports issues expert who has long been known as the “racial conscience of sport.” He currently is the endowed chair and director of the DeVos Sports Management program at the University of Central Florida (UCF).

Lapchick has long believed that sport can be an instrument for positive social change. His sports management program at UCF is known for its courses emphasizing diversity, community service, philanthropy, sport and social issues, and ethics in addition to a strong business curriculum. He was named one of the “100 Most Powerful People in Sports” for six years.

Lapchick was a founder and long-time director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University. He is the author of numerous books, including People in Sports Who Make This a Better World, Broken Promises: Racism in American Sports, and Rules of the Game: Ethics in College Sport. He also regularly writes for ESPN.com and The Sports Business Journal.

Lapchick is the son of Joe Lapchick, a legendary basketball coach for St. John’s University and the New York Knicks.

Ken Reed, League of Fans’ sports policy director, recently interviewed Lapchick.

Reed: How did you get involved in sports reform work?

Lapchick: Well, my father, Joe Lapchick, was a pioneer in the area of racial equality in sports. As the coach of the New York Knicks, he signed the first African-American basketball player in the NBA in 1950, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton. A lot of people at the time didn’t like my father’s values and there was a lot of public hostility towards him. This opened my eyes at an early age to social justice and civil rights issues in sports.

I eventually received a Ph.D. in international race relations from the University of Denver and studied how South Africa used sport as part of the country’s foreign policy. I’ve been involved in social justice causes related to sports ever since.

Reed: If you would, talk about some of the ways sport can be a positive vehicle for social change, and some ways where sport actually plays a negative role when it comes to socio-cultural issues.

Lapchick: I think there are innumerable examples on the negative side. Sports industry leaders will do almost anything to achieve their goals, including filling stadiums up, getting new television contracts, or winning games at any cost. I think we see that at the professional level with some of the scandals that have blown up on individual teams in recent years, for example, with what happened in New England, and then there’s the Saints scandal …. The list goes on and on.

Some of these issues in sport, because they’re so high profile, do give the country the opportunity to talk about these things in ways that wouldn’t be done otherwise. For example, the Penn State story and the ugly things that came to the forefront with that story. The Penn State story gave us a chance to talk about reports saying that a child abuse incident takes place every 10 seconds in this country, and only one in 10 of those cases are reported. Child abuse is an issue we didn’t want to talk about in this country but after the Penn State case we talked about it.

There are certainly positive aspects to sports. For example, the way the Saints brought the community together after Katrina when they won the Super Bowl. Or, consider what happened after 9/11, when our collective psyche was so damaged, and the Yankees made it to the World Series in the city where the attack took place. Everyone seemed to be cheering for the Yankees that year, people who loved them and hated them, because of what they represented that season.

When Japan won the women’s World Cup a couple years ago against the United States, after having gone through the terrible tsunami situation, I remember my wife and I turning to each other with tears in our eyes because Japan winning was way more important that year.

There’s just example after example of sports helping to heal communities and bring about positive social change.

Also, you only have to think about Jackie Robinson, Billie Jean King, or now Jason Collins in the NBA — or, the fact that the San Antonio Spurs now have a woman assistant coach, Becky Hammon — to see the positive impact sport can have on society.

Reed: In 1984, you founded the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University. What was your purpose in doing that?

Lapchick: It was to place a focus on important issues in sports; from problems in college sports, including hiring practices and graduation rates of athletes, to hiring practices at the professional level, to the far from fulfilled promises of Title IX. We also wanted to get former athletes working on social justice issues with young people.

Reed: You also established the National Consortium for Academics and Sports to help athletes complete their education while positively effecting social change in areas such as diversity and inclusion, conflict resolution, and preventing drug and alcohol abuse. What are some of the accomplishments of this initiative that you’re most proud of?

Lapchick: We wanted professional athletes to have a means for completing their degrees if they hadn’t done so before entering the pros. The idea was so popular that we decided to create a consortium of universities that supported that goal. We also discovered that there was a strong need for a program for former athletes that didn’t make the pros to come back and finish their degrees.

The athletes that returned to campus — in exchange for tuition and fees — would get involved with social issues in the communities surrounding their schools. For example, they would go out and talk about the importance of academics, the dangers of drugs and alcohol, race relations, or violence against women. We discovered that you could address all kinds of social issues using sport as a platform, as long as you prepared the athletes to be spokespeople who talk to young people in the community in a knowledgeable manner.

Reed: How many universities are now involved in that program?

Lapchick: 285.

Reed: Wow, that’s great. So, now you’re down at the University of Central Florida, heading up their sports management program. You’ve integrated a lot of socio-cultural type subjects into your curriculum. What do you believe is necessary in developing a sports management curriculum today in order to fully prepare tomorrow’s sports leaders and administrators?

Lapchick: The reason I came to Central Florida in 2001 is that at the time there were already 67 graduate sports management programs in the country and none of them dealt with diversity at all. There was no community service component to any of them. Some of them touched on leadership but not very many. Also, the existing graduate programs weren’t producing many diverse candidates for management positions in the industry.

I came here to help our graduates not only find the type of jobs in the industry that they were interested in but also to help give them the tools to positively impact social change in whatever communities they chose to live in.

I’m hopeful more and more graduate sports management programs will begin to implement a lot of what we’re doing here in terms of diversity, community service and leadership projects. I think it’s just common sense for sports management programs.

Reed: From a business education perspective, does sports management, and the sports industry in general, need to be treated a little differently than other business education disciplines, and other industries – e.g., the automobile industry, or the beer industry — simply because sport is such an important cultural practice in society?

Reed: As a sports business educator, what do you believe are the “absolutes” when it comes to developing ethical sports leaders who are committed to integrity and social justice in sports?

Lapchick: They need to be able to look at their organizations and understand where an ethical issue might be in question, and to understand that at whatever level they are in the organization they can play a role in positively addressing it. If they’re entry level, they must realize that they have an obligation to go to their supervisor. And when they become leaders in their industry, they must know that they need to act decisively when they see an ethical issue developing. They need to act so that the integrity of the organization they lead can never be questioned.

Lapchick: Well, I think for some of the reasons we’ve talked about, that it should be treated differently because of the power sport has to bring about positive social change. We need to give special attention to business school graduates that are going to work in the sport industry because they can really be positive agents for change in the sports world.

Reed: Perhaps the project that has brought you the most media attention over the years is the Racial and Gender Report Card that highlights how sports organizations are doing in the area of diversity in coaching and management staffing. Also, your Graduation Rates Report Card for college football and basketball programs has garnered a lot of attention. Talk about the impact of this “report card” concept you’ve used so successfully.

Lapchick: When we first started the Racial and Gender Report Card, the commissioners of the various pro sports leagues looked at it as kind of a pain in the neck. They wondered why we needed to do it. However, as it’s evolved, I think they now view it as a tool in developing a more diverse and inclusive workforce. The league offices have done a better job with diversity than many of the individual franchises, so I think the commissioners have used the report card to help move some of their franchises forward.

Reed: Do you think athletes, because of their visibility – whether at the professional level or high school level – have an opportunity, and perhaps a responsibility, to engage in community service initiatives?

Lapchick: I think a lot of athletes don’t understand the impact they can have. But the reality is they have such a powerful influence on kids and can have a powerful impact in their communities.

For those athletes who choose to get involved, I think they will feel rewarded and realize that they can be valued for more than being a football player, basketball player or softball player.

I think it’s a win-win situation for everybody when athletes are more engaged in the community.

Reed: Thank you Dr. Lapchick.

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