Author/Professor Kenneth L. Shropshire

The director of the Wharton Sports Business Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania discusses his book, Sport Matters: Leadership, Power, and the Quest for Respect in Sports.

One of the country's foremost experts on sports and its impact on American culture, Kenneth L. Shropshire has provided his expertise as an attorney, consultant, author, and educator. For over twenty-five years, he has been the David W. Hauck Professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and is the Faculty Director of its Wharton Sports Business Initiative. His consulting experience includes work for the NCAA, National Football League, Major League Baseball and the United States Olympic Committee. The latest of his ten published books is titled Sport Matters: Leadership, Power, and the Quest for Respect in Sports. The text examines recent sports controversies, and highlights the need for diversity, inclusion, and respect in the sports world.


Tavis: Now that March Madness has come to a close and major league baseball season is about to begin, an appropriate time, I think, to examine the state of the sports world. Joining me now, Professor Kenneth Shropshire, Director of the Wharton Sports Business Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania, of course.

His new text sheds light on some of the hot button issues in sport, including the debate over whether athletes at the collegiate level should be compensated. The text is called “Sport Matters: Leadership, Power, and the Quest for Respect in Sports”. Professor, good to have you on the program.

Kenneth Shropshire: Thank you, Tavis. Good to be here.

Tavis: What’s the thesis here essentially?

Shropshire: Well, what I’m trying to do is look at an issue I looked at actually about 20 years ago, the race in sports issue. You know, as we’ve evolved, it’s become beyond race. We’re into this diversity issue.

So the book tries to really update the thoughts that I had 20 years ago, but really inject a lot of things going on today, the Donald Sterling issues, the Ray Rice issue, paying college athletes. Largely, you can’t talk about sport without being focused on the role of African Americans in sport.

Tavis: Let me start with the first point. We’ll come to compensate or not to compensate in a moment.

Shropshire: Exactly.

Tavis: How has the intersection of race and sport changed over the last couple of decades since you first looked at this issue?

Shropshire: You know, tragically, it hasn’t gotten much better. On the field of play, we have this illusion that there’s a great deal of diversity out there and that in itself is factual. But at the very highest levels, there hasn’t been much change at all.

The ownership ranks, in terms of team presidents, in terms of head coaches, the numbers are pretty stagnant over the past 20 years. There’s some improvement, some blips, and I say there’s been change, but not real progress. It hasn’t been sustained change.

Tavis: And to what do you attribute that, particularly given that one of the biggest sports fans in the country is a Black man named Barack Obama who now sits in the White House [laugh]? What do you make of the fact that there has been so little that has changed in the world of sport?

Shropshire: Well, you know, the frightening thing or the realities at the very top ownership ranks, it’s more of a global economic thing. I mean, people of color don’t have the money to buy a franchise for $1 billion or $2 billion. We could name off-hand the few that do and many of them already own a franchise.

So that’s the biggest issue. But what’s more complex is what happens at the coaching level? I mean, why don’t we see more people of color as head coaches? Why do we have these dips?

I mean, a couple of years ago, the NFL had 15 openings for head coaches and general managers and not a single African American was hired in a league that’s 80% African American? So that’s the part that’s difficult to ascertain, but that’s what we see in broader society as well.

Tavis: What’s holding them back, though? I mean, I’m not naïve here. Is it just race that’s holding them back or is there something I’m missing here in terms of management? The ownership issue, I get. You got to have money to buy a team. I get that.

Shropshire: Exactly.

Tavis: But in terms of management, what’s the problem?

Shropshire: We’ve seen progress because owners want to win and they will find somebody like a Tony Dungy who is a winner. Some coaches just have not been given the opportunity yet. And some of that is just what we have the rest of society, just the networking across these different boundaries, these diverse boundaries, just doesn’t happen.

If you’re the owner of a franchise, you have lived in the world of billionaires and you have intersected with not even people that will have the referrals of people of color for those jobs. So it hasn’t happened universally.

And a lot of what especially the NFL has done, it’s tried to force that network and to make it happen in a way that’s more affirmative so that there is, you know, the requirement of you have to interview at least one person of color when you have a head coach opening. That doesn’t happen across leagues.

Tavis: So given that this week has brought us the final game in the big dance, the NCAA tournament, this conversation comes up again and again this time of year, which is whether or not college athletes ought to be compensated.

I’m curious as to two things, one what your point of view is on that. But number two, over 20 years, have you seen that debate shift at all?

Shropshire: The debate has shifted. 20 years ago, there was a strong argument that we have to maintain amateurism, and I think people had a misconception of where amateurism came from, that there was some Greek society where people run around in fig leaves that participated in sport for the glory of sport and that’s the foundation for the NCAA.

It turns out there was no such society, that the founding of the NCAA was really based on, hey, let’s find a way to have people participate in sport and not have to pay them. So it has evolved in a way that there’s no real reason for it. So when you ask me should college athletes be paid, I don’t have a problem with it.

My problem is there are a lot better uses for those dollars. There are a lot better expenditures that could be made that could bring about a better system. I mean, it gets back to more of a situation where we have student athletes, where we have more of a rigorous policing of the 20-hour a week rule where you’ve got to go to class.

We want you to be successful on a field of play, but we want you to be successful in the classroom. We want you to be able to come back and graduate if you play pro and we want to pay you for that. We want to take care of your healthcare issues.

This is where the billions of dollars, you know, $11 billion for the NCAA basketball tournament, that’s where I would see those dollars go.

Tavis: Is it the Pac-12–you’ll correct me if I’m wrong here. I think it’s the Pac-12 that has a plan in place now for some of their athletes where they will cover your health insurance five years after? You explain the deal, yeah.

Shropshire: And a number of conferences are doing it. Think about it. It was the case that it wasn’t clear that if you got injured in college that there would be some kind of coverage for you after you were done.

So the Pac-12 and others have said, okay, we’re going to cover for a period of time, so the Pac-12 has gone to five years and many say that’s not enough.

And if you think about some of the old NFL guys when the injuries start to show up later in life in your 50s and 60s and the like, there should be some better form of coverage that takes place, those are the kinds of issues that I see those dollars going to.

Again, I have no problem with, if there are enough dollars available, providing that to the athletes. But there’s so much more that can be done to improve the system rather than think about how much money can we give directly to the athletes.

Tavis: Mark Emmert, of course, has had a rough time as head of the NCAA. Roger Goodell has really had a rough time in the NFL over the last couple of years. We’ll come to some of these issues, I think, in a second here.

But assess for me the leadership of sport in America and whether or not the right kinds of people are at the helm of the sports that we so revere.

Shropshire: Well, you know, so good people, without being too specific…

Tavis: It’s a broad question, yeah, yeah.

Shropshire: Good people can be great leaders. And one of the things I talk about in the book is the greatest leaders are those who realize it’s not just about diversity being in the room, but you’ve got to include people.

You’ve got to have real inclusion when you make the kinds of decisions, if we talk specifically about the Ray Rice deal, when you talk about the kind of punishment that was issued. Clearly, he’s a great leader that didn’t have the right people in the room to understand what kind of sanctions should be delivered to this young man.

You know, when we think about the decisions of the owner here in L.A., Donald Sterling, when he was doing the things he was doing. Who else was in the room with him? When did he really make determinations that were inclusive rather than his single-minded…

Tavis: I mean, it’s Donald Sterling, it’s Penn State, it’s now Syracuse and Jim Boeheim. I mean, I just…

Shropshire: Over and over again.

Tavis: Yeah.

Shropshire: Just not recognizing–you know, to be a leader, to be on a continuous basis conscious that I’ve got to be inclusive of my decision-making. I don’t know everything. I can’t understand what all the issues are.

So in that sense, when I think about in my ’95 book where I’m looking at it in black and white, I mean, that’s where the importance is of realizing how many people can we get or how many voices? I’ve got to understand on every decision I make, there’s probably something I don’t really understand.

Tavis: I think, finally, what do you make of the continuing–I guess we shouldn’t be surprised here, but it seems that it gets more and more acute every year, that is this intersection between sport and societal issues writ large.

Not just the issue of race, but whether we’re talking race, domestic violence, you know, illegal drug use, etc., etc., etc. What do you make of this every other day there seems to be some major story where a sport is intersecting with just a vast array of societal concerns?

Shropshire: But we’ve known this, but we haven’t really focused on it. I mean, if we start off with Jackie Robinson in 1947 integrating major league baseball, people see that happen and say, hey, maybe it could happen in the rest of society too.

Supreme Court, 1954, Brown versus the Board of Education reflected back on that moment. So one of the things about sport that allows us to focus on these issues is that it’s so public, that we care so much about these individuals.

And when you talk about imposing a conversation on people, if you want to talk about sport, these are the kinds of issues that come up. So that’s what’s special about it and that’s the title of the book, that’s why sport matters.

Tavis: Let me come back to that and close right quick. When I saw the title, “Sport Matters”, it was a double entendre for me. I don’t know if you intended that way, but when I saw the title, I asked myself whether or not sport really does matter. Does it still matter?

Shropshire: Well, it shouldn’t matter as much as it does.

Tavis: Right.

Shropshire: I mean, if we could move, especially in our communities, if we could move ourselves away from sport and focus on other issues, we’d be much better off. But, by the way, it’s actually a triple entendre.

I mean, you’re supposed to reflect on Cornel West too and inject that race issue in there as well. So not just the issues, not just sport, but really race is still such a dominant issue in sport.

Tavis: “Sport Matters”–triple entendre [laugh]–“Leadership, Power, and the Quest for Respect in Sports” written by the Wharton professor, Kenneth L. Shropshire. Good to have you on the program, sir.

Shropshire: Thank you, Tavis.

Tavis: Take care of yourself. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: April 7, 2015 at 1:23 pm