Sports controversies have filled the headlines over the past year, from the Miami Dolphins bullying case to racist comments by the Atlanta Hawks’ leadership to questions about the NCAA.
Are we seeing a new low in owners’ and players’ behavior? According to Wharton legal studies professor Kenneth L. Shropshire, these types of behaviors are not new — what is relatively new is the ability to capture these moments on video or to share these stories on mainstream or social media, from a recording of LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling sharing racist comments to a video of the Baltimore Ravens’ Ray Rice assaulting his then-fiancée in an elevator. The greater visibility, Shropshire argues, provides us with an opportunity to address these leadership challenges head on.
Shropshire recently spoke with Knowledge at Wharton about his new book, published by Wharton Digital Press, which addresses these and other issues, Sport Matters: Leadership, Power, and the Quest for Respect in Sports. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Knowledge at Wharton: There has been a rash of incidents involving all of the sports industry where we have seen a loss of respect. That is something that you talk a lot about in Sport Matters.
Kenneth L. Shropshire: It is incredible…. [This] whole issue of integrity and respect — all the important issues that we think about outside of sport and we really think sport should project most positively. This has been a pretty dramatic year.
Knowledge at Wharton: What has it been that has really changed within the fabric of sports that has contributed to this grand change in how people respect the games—or do not respect the games—at the professional level, at the college level and even at the Little League level?
Shropshire: The short answer might be money and … the striving for success. More deeply, what has brought this to our attention is how easy it is to get information out. If you think about Donald Sterling, the Atlanta Hawks owner [Bruce Levenson,] Ray Rice, the incidents have been exposed in a way that we never saw before. Historically, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig may have been up to a lot of things, but we did not know about it. It is [the media] that has revealed this huge respect—or lack of respect—issue that occurs in so many levels of sport.
Knowledge at Wharton: One of the cases that you discuss in the book involves the Miami Dolphins and their hazing case, which is interesting because you spent time with the Dolphins talking with them about what happened and how they can effect change within their organization.
Shropshire: I am still working with [owner] Steve Ross [but] not so much about the organization. What he has done is really try to capture that moment—in the same way that I [have tried to do in] the book. How can you positively take the things that happen in sport and improve society? How can you deliver the messages—and his focus is really at the youngest age—to kids and say, hey, if you are going to participate in sport, here are some other lessons you need to learn as well and you need to carry forward into life…. One of the things that we have struggled with as I have worked with him is it is not too difficult to think about how to work with kids and get them to understand all these important lessons about diversity, inclusion, respect and equality. But how do you do it with adults? How do you do it in the locker room with professional athletes, who in many ways have been pampered throughout their life and have not had to deal with these real-life issues, who in many ways have been in this “sanctuary”— though that might not be the right word — in these locker rooms that are private spaces? [These incidents] have been exposed in a way that people have never seen before. So we know what goes on there in a way that we did not know [before].
“Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig may have been up to a lot of things, but we did not know about it. [Today, the media] has revealed this huge respect … issue that occurs in so many levels of sport.”
Knowledge at Wharton: The interesting part is that you have the contrast between what Mr. Ross is trying to do down in Miami and, of course, what we saw with the Los Angeles Clippers with Donald Sterling, which shook a lot of people to their core. I don’t know if anybody believes that we are in a society where racism [does not exist], but it is still a scary prospect that a man who owned a professional franchise—who obviously had a great deal of power, a great deal of wealth—had these views about people who in some respects were working for him.
Shropshire: We do not know, again, if he is alone in his thoughts or how many other people have said such negative things in privacy…. [His] alleged girlfriend then … recorded [his words] in a way that historically we were not able to do. What it really did was shed light on this issue for those who may have thought we are in some kind of post-racial era: Obama is in the White House and things are rosy all around. But here is somebody in a business that is … predominantly African American, and he expresses such negative views of them…. In the book, I talk about this … idea of tolerance versus respect. The place we would all like to get to is acceptance. He merely, apparently, tolerated these African Americans, and he did not want maybe one of the most prominent sports figures in the world — Magic Johnson — to attend his games because of his race. That really shed a light on where we are. It is not so important that this one man did what he did but just the fact that this still exists — and exists in the most powerful position in sport at the ownership level.
Knowledge at Wharton: When you look at ownership of professional sports teams these days, you have some owners who are doing some unbelievable work for their communities, for their organizations, but you do have owners who — I do not know if it is a case where the bottom line still ends up being the most powerful thing — but [who are not doing that]. You have a case like the Washington Redskins where that name has obviously drawn a lot of attention….Yet Daniel Snyder, the owner of the Redskins, is sticking to his guns in some respects and saying he will not change the name of that team.
Shropshire: Successful men become successful because they have the type of stamina and drive that Dan Snyder has and is displaying on this issue. But what this illustrates further—if we are talking about owners and the different kinds of issues that are there — is the need for not just diversity in these big settings, but also inclusion. It is never clear to me who it is that he is getting this advice from that drives him to stick so adamantly behind his decision to stick with the name that is one of the most racist names characterizing a group of people in existence. You can find some people who say — and you find some Native Americans who say — it is OK. You can poll fans, and the majority of fans who say it is okay. Well, there is a substantial group of people who say it is abhorrent. It is one of the most racist names that exist. If you take the casual step of looking at Webster’s Dictionary, that is the kind of definition you will get of that word…. In sport, we have seen name changes take place quite a bit. We have seen teams take this move and do it positively. We just saw it this past season with the Charlotte Bobcats, [which switched] back to the Charlotte Hornets, and it was a tremendous marketing opportunity. They increased their sales. There are ways to do this positively. Again, if we think of the character of many of the people who own these teams, and there are certainly the positives, but here is a negative moment that also allowed [Snyder] to be very successful in what he does.
Knowledge at Wharton: Character obviously played a big part in the aftermath of the Ray Rice case, which was a case where there was very shocking video of Rice and his then-fiancée in an incident in a casino in Atlantic City. As horrified as a lot of people were of the incident itself, they were also disillusioned in some respects by how it was handled by the “leaders” who were involved in that case—whether it be Roger Goodell leading the case for the NFL or Steve Bisciotti for the Baltimore Ravens. They did take the action to release Ray Rice from his contract, but still there were some people who were very disillusioned by what happened through that whole situation.
“If you do not have an inclusive atmosphere in your leadership setting, do you really know how to react?”
Shropshire: It was a very vivid visual of, again, the need for greater inclusion in these decision-making processes. To have somebody in the room who understands about domestic violence. To have somebody in the room unlike myself. When I saw the second video when Ray Rice struck his then-fiancée as a man would hit a man, I had never seen that in real life…. When that occurs, if you do not have an inclusive atmosphere in your leadership setting, do you really know how to react? Part of the lesson we get from that is to understand that when something new—something you are not familiar with — occurs, if you do not have a domestic violence specialist or you do not have a Native American or you do not have an African American in your leadership space or wherever you may be—then this is the time where you should go out and seek that additional advice and guidance before you take a step that can later be severely criticized and proven to be wrong.
Knowledge at Wharton: In comparison to what the NFL went through with the Ray Rice case, is it tougher when you have an organization like the NCAA? It is a very different situation — but we are talking about an organization that has been very much under fire for a lot of issues over the last several years, including the situation now at the University of Miami with the investigation into their potential improprieties, and the situation at Penn State with Jerry Sandusky and how they handled that. It does require a different type of leadership in some respects.
Shropshire: It really does. You think about the NFL or Major League Baseball or the NBA, you have thirty or so owners who work closely with a commissioner, and their motivation is profit. It is a lot different. There are a lot of issues about protecting the business — in the NFL, they talk about protecting the shield. In the NCAA, you have 1,000+ member institutions. You have got an administrative body in Indianapolis. Is the interest in making as much money as possible, or is it in educating student athletes? When you have these additional issues that come into these individual schools — and maybe they do not happen at all the schools — how do you get everybody united behind the issues that have to be dealt with? It is a lot different when you think about an educational institution trying to deal with issues as opposed to a professional sports organization, which is a relatively small business, [compared with] IBM or others, that has to make business decisions that are not related to whether we are going to get this kid to graduate and to get a degree and to think about being a donor later on and those sorts of things.
Knowledge at Wharton: The interesting part about the NCAA is even though they are tied to educational institutions, realistically the NCAA is a money-making operation when you think about the contracts that they are dealing with to promote college basketball, to promote college football. In some respects, people believe that is to the detriment of the organization. They have so much influence over money-making entities that maybe do they lose sight of what the grander picture is at times.
“We can beat up the NCAA all day, but let’s follow the money and see where it is going….”
Shropshire: Right. Part of the NCAA’s problem is that much of the world does not understand what the NCAA does and what it does not do.… They run a great basketball tournament. That is probably the biggest money maker for the enterprise. But in terms of the football games, the football championships, and all those—that is outside of the NCAA’s purview for the most part, except for the eligibility of the athletes. The new dollars that are coming in, that is up to the individual conferences — that is the PAC12, the SCC and all those other entities. Maybe greater scrutiny about what they are doing and whether or not those dollars are being used to further the educational missions of the individual institutions … is really where the focus should be. We can beat up the NCAA all day, but let’s follow the money and see where it is going and the positive things that can be done. For me, that is well beyond thinking about paying an athlete. It is thinking about how do you help these young men and these young women find their way in life and the early realization that this sports thing is not going to last forever. You have to figure out a way to survive in the world that goes beyond balls and bats and racquets.
Knowledge at Wharton: Ken, what would you like people to really be left with in Sport Matters? What vision would you like them to be left with after they read this book?
Shropshire: Although it is in my mind the dominant respect issue out there, part of the drama that I went through in thinking about this book was to move away from thinking about just the race issue, which I wrote about some years ago in another book, and really just understand that a lot of the issues that are out there — in this space and beyond — are about respect. If we can just figure out how to treat people in a respectful manner — and sports provides a prism for us to think about that — then we can all be a lot better off.