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Recent headlines involving college athletics have been dominated by groundbreaking, game-changing off-field issues. The five major Division I conferences are seeking autonomy in several areas. Former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon is deep into a lawsuit involving player licensing which, if successful, could alter the entire intercollegiate athletics landscape. And at one of our alma maters, Northwestern, football players are moving to form a labor union and become recognized as working employees.
While the issues of licensing and unionization are highly significant, the one common thread running through all these reform efforts is the demand that student athletes — both current and former — receive the best opportunity possible for a quality education and ultimately a degree. Toward this goal, the establishment of an educational trust fund to pursue degree attainment exists in every reform effort, and we at the National Basketball Retired Players Association wholeheartedly support these efforts. Indeed, the time is now.
In our positions with the NBRPA, the official alumni association for professional basketball, we interact with more than 650 former student athletes who no longer hear the roar of the crowd in their day-to-day lives. Our members, former NBA, ABA, Harlem Globetrotters and WNBA players, have entered that next phase of life, and many are doing so without being armed with the greatest key to success in the so-called real world: a college education and degree.
It is true our members went to college, but for whatever reason, be it opportunity at the next level, economic and family need, or perhaps irresponsibility at a young age, many of our members left their institutions of higher learning without graduating. During their time in college, even if short, these men and women played basketball at the best universities in the country and helped raise millions of dollars for their respective institutions through ticket and merchandise sales, sponsorships, and other revenue streams. Given what they contributed to their respective universities, haven’t these men and women, even aside from the monetary return they provided, earned some equity from their institutions through the blood, sweat and tears they left on the court? Don’t all universities have an obligation, even if only an ethical one, to fulfill their educational mission of helping its admitted students attain a degree? Education is the right currency to honor that obligation. The time is now.
The NCAA has an opportunity to implement the education trust fund to assist former athletes.
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The transition from being a professional athlete to developing a successful career away from the playing court is a difficult one, and the lack of education and degree significantly contributes to this already formidable challenge. The lack of an undergraduate degree in today’s world is a tremendous impediment for an individual trying to realize his or her professional goals and aspirations, and it’s even more true in the world of professional basketball, where, based on our best estimates, less than 25 percent of former players have earned undergraduate degrees by the time their professional careers end. This is true for NBRPA members who played at the game’s highest levels, and of even greater concern for players who toiled in developmental leagues without the opportunity to build a financial safety net from basketball.
Interestingly, basketball players are not alone in this area, as a Fox Sports 2012 survey found that only 4.3 percent of Major League Baseball players had graduated from a four-year institution.
Big-time college athletics have always been about balance between education and revenue generation; this is a well-deserved point of pride for university leaders. Today, with change and reform in the air, it’s time for those leaders in both college sports and pro sports to come together for the greater good of student athletes, both current and former. Attaining a college degree is a key to success in life after sports, and the resources surely exist at the intercollegiate and professional levels to make sure former athletes have the opportunity to finish their education on campus or online. In return for tuition, former athletes returning to complete their coursework can provide community or marketing services to the athletic departments they helped build — a win-win for all.
As the dollars get bigger and the scope of college athletics grows, change is inevitable. But as the world of intercollegiate sports evolves, it’s important to remember the underlying educational values that have served universities for decades, and even more important is to take care of the men and women that helped fuel the growth of college sports. Today, we find ourselves looking at a once-in-a-generation reform opportunity, with education being the key to solving the puzzle. The time is now.
Arnie Fielkow (email@example.com) is president and CEO of the National Basketball Retired Players Association. Otis Birdsong (firstname.lastname@example.org) is chairman of the board of the National Basketball Retired Players Association and a four-time NBA All-Star.
IT’S YOUR TURN TO SPEAK OUT
For further information on guest columns in Street & Smith’s SportsBusiness Journal, please contact Betty Gomes at (704) 973-1439 or email@example.com.
My view is that MLS has made impressive progress over 19 years, and particularly over the last 12 to 14 months has made a number of ambitious, strategic moves. Expansion with New York City FC (franchise fee near $100 million), Orlando City SC ($70 million) and now Miami ($25 million, a reduced fee for David Beckham as part of the deal he signed when he joined the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007) provides a list of clubs paying franchise fees I believed were a dream just five years ago. I remember when the initial franchise fee was $5 million.
I’ve also liked over the past year how Tim Leiweke has rejuvenated Toronto FC and made acquiring talent the foundation for building up a fan base. And the league’s impending TV deal seems like a massive hit as well, especially because the viewership numbers don’t justify the economics of what the league will be receiving.
Looking ahead, there are even more positives. The World Cup this summer could have a significant, lasting impact on the game in the U.S., something that bodes well for the league. And MLS’s footprint looks poised for still more growth. There are a number of markets wanting in: Atlanta, Minneapolis, Charlotte, San Antonio, St. Louis, Austin and Sacramento are all exploring bids.
So what’s missing? It’s not a surprise, but MLS needs a more passionate fan base resulting in more television viewers. It needs an improved TV schedule leading to appointment viewing. It likely needs a new schedule and, of course, the biggest piece, more talent on the pitch to get past the perception that it’s a lower-level league. That’s just my top-of-mind assessment. To get a broader perspective, I asked a few of my buddies, all soccer advocates — current and former players and coaches and all ardent followers of the sport (most of them named Matt) — about their impressions of MLS. Some may not be the demo MLS is targeting, but these are soccer fans that MLS needs. Their responses were consistent with what the league and teams have heard before. It comes down to quality of play, quality of the environment, and quality of the scheduling.
Matt is a 43-year-old soccer coach who has been around the game his entire life. He gives the league major props for its progress. “At the start, it was focused on entertainment more than soccer and grabbing the casual sports fan versus the soccer purist,” he said. “But the ship has been righted, and the league realizes that it must be soccer first and that there is enough of a critical mass here in the U.S. and a global audience for MLS to succeed.”
But he does have his issues. “Both at the game and on TV, it just doesn’t always look like and feel like a soccer environment, as some of the venues don’t fill in the stands, some are turf, and on some you can even see football lines,” he added. “Personally, I am a huge opponent of artificial turf for high-level soccer.” He believes the turf hurts the style of play, making the game choppier and less fluid. He watches far more EPL for its high quality of play and “the better venues, all on regular grass, always with packed attendance and chanting fans,” he said.
My buddy Ross agreed and admitted that, as a parent, his time is limited. “Access to watching world-class players is easier than ever,” he told me. “Why watch Seattle and [Clint] Dempsey, who are both excellent and compelling, when I can watch Ibra, Messi and Ronaldo?”
A 20-year-old college soccer player, Matt P. said he catches only two to three MLS games a season, but he watches the EPL every weekend. He cites the lack of “household names” in MLS and the “superstars” in EPL. He also stressed that NBC Sports’ TV coverage and scheduling “also favors the EPL.”
My good buddy Scott plays in a number of men’s leagues and is on the pitch virtually every weekend. Over a few beers, he told me that MLS is more in the conversation among his soccer friends than ever before, but the drawbacks are in presentation and quality of play. “The lack of a set TV schedule for MLS prevents me from watching more, and if I’m going to watch a game, it will be an EPL game, both for the quality and the fact that I know it is on Saturday and Sunday mornings,” he said. “The coverage of the MLS game needs to be more engaging. There is still such a distinct difference and feeling in watching an MLS game versus an EPL, La Liga or Bundesliga game.” He also cited the quality of play, and while he loves the addition of Michael Bradley in Toronto, he said, “The next big MLS coup will be to get a world-class, non U.S. player here in his prime.” He also wants more competition against Europe’s best. “I wish there was a way that our better MLS teams could play in a European tournament and be tested there more. The CONCACAF Champions League is somewhat compelling but not enough,” he said.
A positive element is the emerging rivalry that has developed in the Pacific Northwest. Another Matt (yes, the third), a 19-year-old college player, has watched MLS seriously since 2009, when the Seattle Sounders entered the league. He doesn’t miss a Sounders game. “I enjoy watching the Sounders because of the atmosphere at the games. Roughly 40,000 fans attend each home game, and the team gets good road support as well,” he said.
Lance, a 43-year-old former college player, wants more rivalries and said the Pacific Northwest teams have led him to consume more MLS action. “I like the Portland-Seattle rivalry. The fans make watching the game on TV actually kind of fun,” he said. Scott agreed with that point: “Seattle has created a great atmosphere and fan base.”
Coach Matt has been around the game the most, and while not an early believer, he’s now bullish on MLS. “Keep evolving,” he stressed. His plan: More grass-only, soccer-specific venues; expansion of the salary cap and designated-player position; continued focus on player development; and changes to the schedule, “[to] be like the rest of the soccer world by dropping conferences and having one table where everyone plays each other twice, home and away.” His other point: Drop the MLS playoffs and MLS Cup. “No one else in the soccer world has a regular season, then playoffs, then a ‘Super Bowl’ or championship game,” he said. “Make the league champion and the U.S. Open Cup the big trophies.”
MLS Commissioner Don Garber and his staff have heard all this before. Garber discussed these points at his State of the League address in December, especially the development of rivalries in New York, the Southeast and the Midwest. The issue of “talent” is a focal point of the discussion of the club presidents in our In-Depth this week; Leiweke called the “level of play” the league’s strongest asset. And the TV and promotion schedule of the sport was hit on very astutely by Timbers owner Merritt Paulson.
These are all important, difficult and complicated issues to be resolved, no doubt. But to my original point: Impressive progress continues to be made, and the good news for MLS is that each of my buddies wants to support MLS, and they are doing so more than ever. I’ll give Coach Matt the final word, as he told me in signing off, “We are grabbing more of the pie, and we have the momentum on our side.”
> CHECKING IN WITH JOEL, THE FARMER: Many of you have commented how much you enjoyed reading the story about the Pennsylvania dairy farmer Joel and his family on their way to a vacation at Disney World (SportsBusiness Journal, Nov. 18-24, 2013). I recently heard from a friend of Joel’s who read the piece — Scott of Orrstown, Pa. He is also a farmer and the same age as Joel and thanked me for telling the story of his friend. “I think that most of us are proud of what we do and what we stand for. It still feels good when you get a little pat on the back. I feel like your story does that for me,” he wrote.
I really appreciated that note from Scott and have kept in touch with Joel since meeting him in November. He wrote me last week, “We are all doing well, just really tired of winter. We have had a lot of below normal temperatures, mornings at zero degrees and more snow than normal. It makes for more work and it takes longer just to do ‘normal’ chores.’” He did catch the Super Bowl at a friend’s house: “The food was good. What a bad game!” He is looking forward to spring and baseball season. “As a kid, I would listen to baseball on the radio, [and] since then I have been an Orioles fan. [My son] Isaac is now interested in it as well. We hope to go to a game this summer in Baltimore and have a vacation day with the family.”
My new friend gives me a laugh when he ends his note by easing my concern of whether I could handle their work hours if I ever get to visit the farm. “You are welcome here anytime. You don’t even have to work, just visit.”
Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
■ Share with your employees your vision and the vision of the organization. Give them a sense of ownership in the tactics and strategies the company will employ. At the same time, motivate by holding them accountable for their actions, by providing feedback and constructive criticism (and praise) so they can improve their performance. Employees welcome direct and personal attention from their superiors. If your company has an annual performance review procedure, embrace it.
■ Always use the pronoun “we” (rather than “I”) when talking about the strategy, plans, operations and performance of your unit, department, division or company. That demonstrates to your staff (and to outsiders) you believe in the value of the team and that success will be shared and enjoyed by the group.
■ Provide small benefits from time to time when appropriate or when requested by employees — a “work at home day,” an additional hour at lunch, snacks at meetings, the chance to earn additional compensation for extra work, free tickets, gift cards, complimentary services and promotional items given to the company, access to sports facilities for themselves and their families if available free or at low cost to the company.
■ Introduce subordinates to clients, take them to business meetings and include them in conference calls. These are very effective ways to motivate staff and incorporate them into the work ethic of your company.
■ Provide workshops and opportunities for employees to attend classes and meetings that enable them to upgrade their skills and work toward career goals.
■ Never overlook the importance of a “thank you” or “good job” expression of appreciation. Celebrate team and individual achievement with public praise and private support (notes, phone calls, face-to-face meetings). It’s so easy to do and so highly treasured by your staff. “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” (Anonymous).
■ Set team targets and rewards for the various departments and units within your company. Create an environment where ideas are encouraged and shared. Welcome employee suggestions on how to improve the organization.
Sitting in on small-group meetings can show a manager’s interest in employees’ assignments.
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■ Get to know your employees. Ask, “How are you doing?” (and mean it; you really do care). Spend time with them one on one, ask about their family, their background, their career goals and about any concerns they may have regarding the work place.
■ Keep the door to your office open whenever you can (a symbolic gesture that says a lot about your personality and willingness to listen and share), encourage staff to come and discuss matters, reply to employee and staff emails and phone calls, join brown-bag or in-office lunches, spend time at the water cooler. Be open, accessible and available, 24/7.
■ Let employees and staff know that if they bring a problem to your door, they must also be ready with thoughtful suggestions and ideas on how to solve the problem.
■ Don’t micromanage. Constantly looking over your employees’ shoulders tells them they are not trusted and they won’t take responsibility for their tasks. However, let them know that they will be judged by the quality and timeliness of their work and will be rewarded for their successes and held responsible for failure.
■ Support family involvement. Create a work space where families are invited to visit and learn about their family member’s job and the direction of the company. Companies that organize family outings, events and parties are more likely to keep their staff happy and will help educate their families about the time spent on the job.
■ Set up career guidance appointments. It is important for the organization to have a culture that promotes personal development and growth. Staff members need to feel that their skills are valued and they have the potential to grow.
■ Encourage your staff to hold a monthly meeting without the presence of senior management to discuss creative ideas and improvements for the unit. Each month, assign a different staff member to lead the meeting and to report to you on results. It is as important that your staff relate to each other as it is for them to relate to you. And it’s always appreciated if you supply coffee, soft drinks and snacks.
■ Don’t make decisions until you have to but then be decisive. Explain to your staff that an early or premature decision often fails to take into account new information and developments that could change or alter the final result. This means you keep a lot of balls in the air but having options and choices is the best way to run a company. Knowing when to make the final decision is the secret sauce.
■ Learn to be a good listener. It’s a more difficult skill than becoming a good speaker. Make good eye contact, smile, nod your head, lean towards the speaker (not away) and … learn.
■ Manage expectations. Yours, your staff and your superiors. Have the vision, but set deadlines and goals that are realistic and achievable because you and your unit most likely will be measured by whether you reach those targets, not by whether you achieve your vision. Employee morale can be hurt unnecessarily by failing to reach an unattainable goal.
Neal Pilson (email@example.com) is president and founder of Pilson Communications and former president of CBS Sports.