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Ken Reed was a recent guest on the Ralph Nader Radio Hour to discuss The Sports Reformers: Working to Make the World of Sports a Better Place, and to talk about some current sports issues.

“My concern is what’s happening in schools and there are some schools out there that are being built now without gyms. Physical education isn’t even required in a lot of schools. And it’s not only hurting the physical health of our kids, but plenty of research shows that behavioral problems go up when physical activity goes down. And also on the positive side of physical activity, the more active kids are cardiovascularly, the better they do on academic tests.” — Ken Reed, sports policy director for League of Fans

The Sports Reformers: Working to Make the World of Sports a Better Place
By Ken Reed
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Ken Reed’s Author Page on Amazon


Ken Reed interview transcript from the Ralph Nader Radio Hour

David Feldman: Ken Reed is the Sports Policy Director for League of Fans, a sports reform organization founded by Ralph Nader and based in Washington D.C. He writes position papers, columns, and a blog on the biggest and most important issues in sports today. He’s the editor of a new book entitled The Sports Reformers, which is a collection of short interviews with current and former athletes, doctors, lawyers, politicians, consumer watch dogs, former athletic administrators, research scientists, civil rights activists, professors, fans, and parents who are working to enhance the positives and lessen the negatives in sports. Welcome back to the Ralph Nader Radio Hour, Ken Reed.

Ken Reed: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Ralph Nader: Ken, in your new book, you recount a theme that has been constant in all your great work and reviewing the sports world, professional sports, amateur sports. And that is it’s infected with this demand of win at any cost, profit at any cost. And that’s not just the professional teams in football, basketball, baseball, hockey, it goes into college football, high school sports, and of course right down to middle school. So we’re at the beginning of more and more people speaking up like you. We have in the front pages today where Nike has enlisted Colin Kaepernick, the former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, in an ad to illustrate their motto “Just do it” and that’s an unfurling controversy. But in your book, you have a lot of great people being interviewed.

Short, cogent interviews who have spoken up all over the country and that’s what I’d really like to run by, some of these great people who you’ve interviewed. And let’s start with one of your great concerns, which is the loss of phys. ed. programs in more and more high schools and middle schools. What can you tell me about Diana Cutaia?

Ken Reed: Well Diana and Brenda Van Lingen who’s also in the book and a couple other people we touched on the lack of physical education and the decline of recess even where in the middle of a childhood obesity epidemic, kids are less and less active not only in schools, but at home with their video games and screen time. My concern is what’s happening in schools and there are some schools out there that are being built now without gyms. Physical education isn’t even required in a lot of schools. And it’s not only hurting the physical health of our kids, but there’s plenty of research shows that behavioral problems go up when physical activity goes down. And also on the positive side of physical activity, the more active kids are cardiovascularly, the better they do on academic tests. Because physical education or physical activity specifically actually grows brain cells.

Ralph Nader: And what are these two women doing about this?

Ken Reed: Well, there is an organization called PE4Life that is focused on getting physical education back in schools on a daily basis like it was at one time and specifically cardiovascular physical activity. So instead of just plain 11B, 11 . . . playing football games, they cut it down to 4 on 4 or a 3 on 3 basketball or 3 on 3 soccer, so everyone’s moving for the entire period. They’re putting heart rate monitors on kids to make sure they’re getting their heart rates up enough to have positive effects. And it’s just basically trying to overcome what’s happened in this country. With the No Child Left Behind Legislation, schools put more and more focus on classroom time and cut out physical education time. When the opposite, if they want to raise scores on these academic tests would be to get more physical activity, because the research shows a clear link between physical activity and increased academic performance.

Ralph Nader: Give us the growth since 1980 of childhood obesity.

Ken Reed: This is from my book, How We Can Save Sports: A Game Plan, that says the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention report that the percentage of children ages six to 11 who are now overweight has increased nearly 300% in the last 25 years.

Ralph Nader: And of course this means early diabetes. It means a predisposition to high blood pressure. And these women, Brenda Van Lingen and Diana Cutaia in your book entitled The Sports Reformers: Working to Make the World of Sports a Better Place, are really quite insistent on changing the situation here. I mean Diana is quoted in your book as saying that he was in an assistant coaching position at Mount Holyoke College while she was working on her master’s degree. And while she was there, she stopped by the gym one day and watched the 6th-grade basketball game. The language and I’m quoting from her “The language from the coaches and parents had a distinct aggressive, violent and warlike tone. There was a lot of focusing on attacking the opponent and very little sportsmanship going on. I walked out of the gym thinking if this stuff is going on during 6th- grade games, we need to find a better way. We have to make changes. That’s when I began to research and develop my ideas on coaching peace.” And she gives her website coachingpeace.com. How far along are the women like these and other people who are trying to change the practice of win at any cost/profit at any cost ideology in sports?

Ken Reed: Well you mentioned early on that the win at all costs, which I call “whack” and whacky philosophy because it goes all the way down to the youth levels. And what’s happening is that in the youth and middle school programs, they’re specializing in focusing on elite athletes now trying to get elite athletic teams rather than creating sports opportunities like we used to call intramural sports where everyone in the school could participate, playground sports, physical education classes. There’s long been this philosophy that sport is good in building character and building bodies, etc., but what’s happening in reality is we’re weeding out most of the kids in these schools that aren’t athletic enough to play on these elite travel competitive teams.

Ralph Nader: Well, you’ve been a leading critic of the whole cover-up with a concussion problem, which affects high school football players,
college, and professional. And more and more disclosures are showing what a devastating epidemic this has been, but why don’t we turn to another interview, Dave Zirin. Why don’t you tell us about Dave Zirin?

Ken Reed: Well, he’s a great colleague and inspiration to me. He’s been at this longer than I have. He’s one of the leading sports journalists, activists in the country/activist. He writes about the intersection between sports and social, political, cultural issues. And is doing a great job on various issues from win-at-all-costs and publicly financed stadiums, the concussions in youth sports. So he’s out there. He’s one of our best and loudest voices on these subjects.

Ralph Nader: And how about this St. John’s up in Minnesota, football coach who I interviewed once, John Gagliardi? He was a tremendous winning record. What did he do that was so unique?

Ken Reed: Well, yeah, first of all, he is the winningest football coach of all time across all levels. And the main thing is–the lesson from John is that he provides proof that you don’t have to be an autocratic, authoritarian, drill sergeant like Vince Lombardi to be successful on team sports. He was a great humanitarian coach. His only rule was The Golden Rule. He was a way ahead of his time in terms of not having full contact practices during the week to prevent injuries including concussions. They did a lot of their practices in shorts. In their hour and a half practices, they ran through plays and conditioned and that’s pretty much what he did. And he won out more games than anyone else in football history.

Ralph Nader: And he let the quarterback call most of the plays and he graduated his athletes almost at a 100% rate. He’s recently retired. I tried to get him to write his autobiography, but he was too modest. But he’s a real legend. And this is a fascinating interview in your book of The Sports Reformers. What about that great writer for the New York Times and the great author Robert Lipsyte who’s been a great supporter of the League of Fans group in your work?

Ken Reed: Yes. I met Robert Lipsyte who was a longtime New York Times sports columnist probably 25, 30 years ago at a sports issues conference and we had a long talk. And he encouraged me to get into this area and helped me get an op-ed published in the New York Times that kind of kicked off my career. But he’s another pioneer in terms of being a sports-activist journalist. Back when he was writing in the ’70s and ’80s primarily, there was a lot of what he called “God-ing up the athletes” and making athletes on a pedestal, making sports events seem like sacramental activities that are of the utmost importance. He did a good job of showing the faults of not only the athletes, but the organizations themselves. In his book, I think it first came out in 1978, called Sports World: An American Dreamland, is a seminal work in sports journalism in terms of focusing on the issues behind the games themselves.

Ralph Nader: Let’s go to Terri Lakowski who’s a champion of equal treatment between male and female athletes starting in high school or earlier that’s the so called Title IX requirement. And I know you have two daughters who were athletes. And by the way, listeners, you should know that Ken Reed was a varsity player in three sports in high school. He managed teams. He was in the marketing of sports. He’s done it all before he basically said “I got to do the kind of work where I can take my conscience to work and expose so many of these terrible infirmities in organized sports. And getting people off their chairs, from their role as spectators and participate in intramural sports or even just in their neighborhood.” So tell us about Terri Lakowski.

Ken Reed: Well just to add on to that, I was actually in sports marketing, thinking well, as someone who’s passionate about sports, I played basketball and baseball in college, my dad was a coach. I said sports marketing would be a good career until I had trouble sleeping for a long time because I was working… mostly a lot of the clients with the firm I was with were in the business of selling tub seats and sweets for NFL football teams and NBA basketball teams. And it got to the point where I saw that I was contributing more to the problem than the solution and it wasn’t until I came across actually PE4Life and working for them as a client and helping them with their communication, that I saw that you can make a difference through sports, that sports is a great way to positively change the world if it’s done properly.
And that’s doing properly, I mean, by taking that whack, the win-at-all- costs (WAAC) and the PAAC (profit-at-all-costs) out of it, you can really use sports to do some positive things. Now back to Terri Lakowski. She’s a former athlete herself who grew tired of feeling like a second-class citizen when it came to the boys and having to practice in the “girls’ gym” and getting hand-me-down uniforms and smaller travel budgets, etc. and she went on and did some of her master’s work in Title IX and turned it into a career. She’s been one of our leaders on equal opportunity in sports both for gender and for disabled athletes. She’s a consultant now and does great work promoting equal access to sports at all levels.

Ralph Nader: Indeed. She’s very articulate on this. There’s been a lot of progress in enforcing Title IX around the country. But there’s still a lot more to do.

Steve Skrovan: Ken, I wanted to talk to both you and Ralph about Colin Kaepernick Nike ad. The print ad that was black and white Colin Kaepernick’s face and the tagline is “Believe in Something. Even if it Means Sacrificing Everything.” And what’s fascinating to me to talk to both of you about this is that it really does come at the intersection of sports, social activism, and corporate power. Because here you have a corporation, Nike, sort of taking a stand that is not conventional, which they are known to do, and as a result, people are burning their Nike shoes apparently. And Donald Trump has actually softened his stance when he was asked about it. He didn’t talk in terms of Kaepernick necessarily but he talked in terms of Nike has a right to say and do what they want to do. And then of course you find out later or actually he admits it himself that Nike is a tenant in one of the Trump organization’s buildings. And he literally says “they pay a lot of rent” and a he admitted to that. So it’s really kind of just a mishmash of interest colliding here. You have a corporation that looks like it might be doing something right by free speech and then you have this president who seems to soften it because it’s a corporation, what Ken and Ralph sort it out for me?

Ken Reed: Well I wrote about this yesterday at leagueoffans.org and one of the things that first struck me was how shocking it was. I mean, Nike, not only is a huge corporation, but they’re an NFL corporate sponsor that provides the game uniforms for all NFL teams, and as we know, the NFL owners have been totally against Colin Kaepernick to the point where he’s filed a collusion lawsuit against them claiming that they colluded and won’t hire him as a quarterback in his prime And so for Nike to do that with NFL as one of their big sponsors was pretty shocking. Second . . .

Steve Skrovan: They provide all the uniforms for the NFL.

Ken Reed: Yeah, yeah, they provide all the uniforms. So I imagine that Roger Goodell and Jerry Jones and all the other owners were shocked because Nike said they didn’t talk to the NFL before they came out with this campaign, which is interesting in itself as well. So I can imagine the conversations in the board rooms at NFL teams about this campaign. It’s also ironic that Nike is being viewed now by some on the left as a socially progressive corporation because of this campaign. And they have such a long history of being just the opposite in terms of sweatshops, poor pay and labor situations for their products around the world. And just this past year being seen as a sexist work environment, so . . .

Steve Skrovan: Yeah, I can’t figure out whose side I’m supposed to be on. It’s like . . .

Ken Reed: Yeah. It’s strange.

Steve Skrovan: Trump is saying something, Oh, wait a minute, but it’s that and then Nike sounds good, but they still have sweatshops and it’s crazy.

Ken Reed: It is crazy. But you know Nike has explored all these issues. They kind of have a history as Ralph alluded of some ads, rebel-type ads way back when Spike Lee and Michael Jordan got involved with Nike. And they also know the research that 40% of all shoppers by 2020 are expected to be millennials and so I think some of the older white males that are mostly upset with this Kaepernick thing and this ad campaign aren’t that big a concern to them as the younger millennials are that they’re trying to target here. Kaepernick’s jersey has remained one of the top 50 sellers in the NFL these last two years and he hasn’t played it down.

Ralph Nader: You know, Steve, the less Kaepernick talks, the more popular he becomes in the polls. The polls are showing a gradual rise in support for his right to do what he did. And I think that reached the attention of the Nike merchandisers. I would expect that they made a tremendous study about the pro and cons here for their sales. This was not an off-the-cuff decision.

Steve Skrovan: They gamed this out – yeah.

Ken Reed: Well, and also what I saw is they went back in history and people like Muhammad Ali and others that stood up for civil rights in the ’60s and ’70s, etc., and saw that they ended up on the right side of history and became very popular. And I think they view Kaepernick as someone in 10, 15 years that is going to be looked at a lot more favorably than he currently is by the country as a whole. I mean this guy . . . I heard yesterday people complaining that about the sacrificed everything part of the campaign because he’s going to get compensated pretty well I imagine by Nike, which is good for him. He’s given up his career and its prime and he hasn’t been paid by the NFL.

But he did sacrifice his career and the salaries to do this. I mean at 30 years old, he was in the prime as a quarterback and he gave that up, so whether he sacrificed everything or not, it’s different. But he actually has contributed million dollars or more to some of these social causes. And like Ralph says, he speaks very little, but has been very powerful in terms of a symbol fighting for social justice in this country.

Ralph Nader: Thank you very much, Ken. We’re out of time, but I hope you’ll have more interviews around the country with this book. It’s an easy read, but it’s a very, very probing and a very, very enlightening and motivating read.

Ken Reed: Well thanks for those words, Ralph, and I appreciate the time.

Ralph Nader: You’re welcome.

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