A League of Fans Special Feature
Tom McMillen was a three-time All-American basketball player at the University of Maryland. He then was a Rhodes Scholar and played professional basketball in Europe for a year before embarking on an 11-season career in the National Basketball Association.
He retired in 1986 to begin a political career. He represented the 4th congressional district of Maryland from January 1987 to January 1993. He then began pursuing various business ventures.
McMillen has been involved with the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports — now called the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition — in various capacities since 1970. On March 22, 2011, he was appointed Chairman of the inaugural Board of Directors of the National Foundation on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition.
McMillen also has served on the Knight Foundation’s Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, which investigates abuses within college sports. He is the author of Out of Bounds, a critical look at the impact of greed and unethical behavior in the world of sports. In 1988, he was inducted into the GTE Academic All-American Hall of Fame as a charter member.
Currently, Mr. McMillen serves as Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Timios National Corporation, a real estate services company, as well as continuing to serve on the board of directors for the National Foundation on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition. He is also a director of RCS Capital, a publicly traded investment bank and broker-dealer, and serves on the advisory board of Clean Energy Systems, a clean coal technology firm.
Ken Reed, League of Fans’ sports policy director, recently interviewed McMillen.
Ken Reed: Tom, despite your success in politics and business, a lot of people still remember you primarily as a great basketball player. What is your top takeaway from your basketball career?
Tom McMillen: Well, my basketball career was satisfying on one hand, but it was challenging on the other in the sense that you have to have your second and third acts in life.
Athletics is great. It teaches you so many intangibles about leadership, teamwork, and other things. It was a very valuable experience in many ways.
Reed: You chose to accept a Rhodes scholarship before focusing on an NBA career. What was the most memorable part of your experience at Oxford?
McMillen: It was truly a very interesting experience because I was a science major in college and I went over there and did philosophy, politics and economics, which was really a right turn academically for me. And, of course, I was thrust into an environment with very bright and accomplished people. On top of all of that, I was playing basketball in Italy twice a week.
My memories of Oxford are such that I remember being very busy but it was a very exhilarating period of time. I had to stay very focused because Oxford didn’t care about Italy and Italy didn’t care about Oxford.
It was also very enlightening to discover that my classmates from Pakistan, Great Britain, Germany, Malaysia, and India knew as much about the American government system as I did. It was a big wake-up call about how Americans are so insular and how they need to expand their perspective and scope.
Reed: You’ve been involved with the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports for a long time. What do you think the Council’s greatest success has been during the time of your involvement? And what was your greatest frustration during this same time frame?
McMillen: I think the greatest success for the Council – with very few resources – was mobilizing the private sector in so many areas, including the fitness test that’s been in our schools for 50-some years.
The biggest frustration has been that as a federal government we don’t put much priority on it. The Council’s budget has always been a little over a million dollars. It’s really tough to be an effective federal agency with a staff of three, four, or five people and a million dollar budget. Which is why I worked to get this foundation created, the National Foundation on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition. It was chartered to support the President’s Council and its mission.
Reed: We’re in the middle of a childhood obesity crisis in this country, yet physical education in our schools continues to be cut back despite a growing mound of research that shows that fit kids are not only healthier but perform better academically and have fewer behavioral problems. Why do you think these cuts to P.E. are being made and how do you think we can turn this trend around?
McMillen: One of the casualties of today’s school day calendar is health, wellness and fitness programs in our schools. Fixing that is a real priority issue. When you look across the country, very few states make it a priority. But I think there is hope that it will change. It’s going to have to. When you look at the epidemic of childhood obesity in this country — and the baby boomers getting old, 80 million of them, followed by generations of kids that aren’t as healthy as their parents — we can’t afford to stay on this path. The healthcare costs are going to be just astronomical. It’s pretty frightening.
Reed: It seems like the world of youth sports is focusing more and more on elite athletes. These club teams and competitive travel teams we see so much of today are expensive, and often price out lower-and-middle-class kids. Meanwhile, schools not only are cutting way back on physical education, they’re dropping intramural sports programs. It doesn’t seem like a good situation for our society as a whole, does it?
McMillen: It isn’t a good situation. As you mentioned, a lot of the kids that are playing sports today are doing so in elite sports programs, and it usually costs a lot of money to do that. It’s become much more of an elite environment for young people in this country. It’s not a healthy situation. It’s becoming a bifurcated system, like so many other aspects of our society.
Reed: Looking at the big picture, what are your thoughts on the overarching sports model in this country?
McMillen: As I always say, the ideal model is to have a pyramidal structure in sports where you have a lot of public resources at the bottom of the pyramid, at the grassroots level, and less at the top for elite sports. We have an upside down pyramid where we spend a lot at the top on stadiums and creating monopolies for professional sports. We try to get more consumer dollars to support that system when we aren’t doing the same at the bottom of the pyramid. We really need to invert that pyramid in this country.
The problem with sports in America is that we’ve always had a very laissez-faire system. In other countries … as an example, if you go to China, which I’ve done, and visit their sports ministry, you’ll see 200 people working on sports policy issues there. And every budget in Chinese government, from the federal government down to the local government, has money in it for grassroots sports. They certainly emphasize elite sports but their methodology is let’s cut a wide swath and let everyone participate and then out of that we’ll generate elite athletes. We don’t have that approach here.
The way we structure our sports system is the overriding issue. The folks in charge of grassroots sports in this country, ironically, are the United States Olympic Committee, which does very little, and professional sports organizations. It’s a system that’s very oligarchy in nature and not based on broad grassroots participation.
Reed: As you eluded to, in looking at how other countries establish national sports policy, many countries have government positions such as a sports minister …
McMillen: Well, almost every country has a sports minister-type of position, if you will. I think the United States is the only one that doesn’t. We’ve decided that a laissez-faire system is the way to go.
Reed: What do you think is the biggest sports issue in the United States today?
McMillen: I think the elitism in sports has become even more pronounced today. It’s gone even deeper into our schools and communities.
To significantly change our sports model, I think the obesity crisis in this country would have to become even more pronounced in order to force a serious presidential commission on this stuff.
However, it’s not just the youth sports issue that needs to be looked at, it’s also college sports and how they effect our educational institutions. In fact, the whole sports structure in America — which is in many respects driven by pure dollars and cents, not by our national interests – needs to be examined.
I think at some point in time, we have to stop and ask, what is our national interest when it comes to sports? When you can’t field an army that is in shape; and you’re children are getting diabetes; and you’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year on stadiums built by the public for private owners; and you’re paying college coaches $5 million a year when the school president makes a tenth of that; I think you need to start asking serious questions about where we’re heading with all of this.
Reed: For someone like yourself, who’s been working on sports reform issues for decades, is it frustrating to see how little progress has been made?
McMillen: It’s very frustrating, and often the victories are small. But, you get to tipping points on this stuff. I don’t know where that is on many of these issues, however, I think college sports is getting there because of litigation — like the O’Bannon case — and the players demanding rights. I think the O’Bannon case will be a seminal case and it will have ramifications throughout sports.
Reed: The United States is known as a “sports-mad country,” yet the reality is that we’re primarily a nation of spectators rather than participants when it comes to sports. Do you have any thoughts on how we can get more adult participation in sports in this country?
McMillen: Well, first of all, to your point about this being a spectator nation, when I was co-chairing the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, I went to Lillehammer when they were awarded the Olympics, with Mrs. Clinton on the delegation, and I went to Atlanta with President Clinton when Atlanta was awarded the Olympics. The contrast was so interesting because the Norwegians celebrated being awarded the Olympics by having a million Norwegians go out and cross country ski. We celebrated the United States being awarded the Olympics by having a torch runner watched by millions of Americans.
You have to look at the sports organizations in this country for leadership. Clearly, the United States Olympic Committee has responsibilities to win gold medals but the Amateur Sports Act gave them responsibility as well for grassroots sports development. But obviously they don’t get the governmental resources to effectively fulfill that responsibility. If it’s an unfunded mandate it’s never going to happen.
Reed: Where do you see sports heading in this country in the coming years?
McMillen: The interesting thing about the O’Bannon case is that once you separate the commercial sports entity from the academic institution in college sports you can go in a lot of directions. That might be the point where you privatize these athletic programs, sort of like how student unions are run on campuses.
After the O’Bannon case — if the Emperor is truly unclothed — you might see a lot of these schools get out of the sports business and disassociate academics and sports. That would sort of lead you to the European model, under which elite sports and academics are separated.
Getting this superhighway to pro sports — the NBA and NFL — out of our school systems certainly wouldn’t be a bad thing. I actually think the European model has a lot of advantages over the U.S. system.
Reed: If tomorrow you were named sports czar for the United States, what would be your first action?
McMillen: Well, it would depend on the kind of authority I’d be given, but I think the first thing you have to do is sit down with the powers that be in sports, which would be the pro sports leagues and the United States Olympic Committee. They have to be full partners in this quest to invert the sports pyramid in the United States. The goal should be a right side up sports pyramid, not the inverted pyramid we have right now. And I think the biggest players in that are the ones that control so much of sports today.
There are a lot of things that could be considered from a policy standpoint. However, I believe you need something in sports like the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. You need what Dodd-Frank did in the financial services area – in terms of reform and consumer protection — to happen in the sports area, if we’re ever gong to get significant change in our sports system.
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League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.
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