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Volume 21 No. 1
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Why soccer’s Gulati gets a kick out of teaching

“You’re here with an extraordinary opportunity. Wherever the journey takes you, have a high intolerance for the pain of others.”

This was U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati in early May, speaking before 190 students in a packed auditorium at Columbia University. It was the semester’s final lecture in the Principles of Economics course he first started teaching at the school in 1986.

Dressed in a blazer, dress shirt and jeans, Gulati walked up and down the rows and across the front of the room — a passionate, but mellow, evangelist. Born in India and raised in the United States beginning at age 5, Gulati shared his business experiences across the world, as an economist for the World Bank and from his life as a sports executive. He exhorted the youngsters to share their talents to aid those less fortunate.

U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati teaches three courses at Columbia University.
Photo by: Christopher Botta / Staff
After four months of discussion about Pareto efficiency, cost-benefit analysis and John Rawls’ “A Theory of Justice,” Gulati took the final 30 minutes of the semester’s last session to appeal to students to give back after their careers are established. For Gulati, the president of U.S. Soccer for the last eight years, the appeal for compassion has been a mainstay since he started teaching at Columbia 28 years ago, before being named a senior lecturer in 2002.

“Columbia pays me for 27 lectures for each course,” Gulati said. “The last half-hour is on the house.”

Most semesters, Gulati teaches three courses: the introductory economics course, one on the global economy, and a once-a-week, three-hour lecture on sports economics and management. For the sports class, influential figures have participated in question-and-answer sessions with the students at Gulati’s invitation, including David Stern, John Skipper, Jurgen Klinsmann, Adam Silver and Jonathan Kraft.

For Gulati, however, teaching the Principles of Economics course is his favorite part of being a professor at the Ivy League institution in upper Manhattan.

“I have the chance to give a young person their first impression of economics,” Gulati said in his office at Columbia. “Not only the theoretical parts of it, but also the philosophical and human side of the science.
Fundamentally, economics is about making choices. When you first see students as they figure out how banks create money, their eyes light up in amazement and wonder. That part never stops being fun for me.”

Watching him at the last 75-minute session of the spring semester, you would never know that Gulati has been teaching for so long. From the moment he closed the auditorium doors at 8:40 a.m. to signal the start of class, Gulati displayed the zeal of a professor leading a college class for the first time.

“It’s like an actor doing the same performance 600 times — what’s different is the audience,” said Gulati, who turns 55 on Wednesday. “New students, new questions. It’s always challenging. I enjoy being in front of a large group and speaking about something that’s so important.”

He opened the session with a survey, hoping to learn what his students thought of the Principles of Economics class. One of the questions for the students to answer via clicker: “True or False: You sent a text or email during the class at least once during the semester.”

There was a collective, nervous giggle when the question appeared on the screen behind the professor.

“My guess would be about 60-70 percent of the students has done it,” Gulati would say later in his office. “The rules in my class are TED conference rules: Computers can be used only if you’re sitting in the last two rows. Some teachers don’t care about the texting because they feel that you’ve paid for the class, so do what you want. I’m not that way. It disturbs other people. It’s discourteous. If I see a student texting, I’ll chastise them for it.”

After the survey, Gulati looked to spark a group discussion. He gave the students a choice of a society in which to live: “World A” would be “50 percent Calcutta and 50 percent Scarsdale” (in other words, a world where half the population was poor and the other half was rich); “World B” would be “100 percent Argentinian farmland,” where citizens split the resources and were in the same economic class.

The students seemed evenly divided in their opinions and more than a dozen of them stood and argued their cases.
“Dr. Gulati always gives us something to think about, which is why it’s my favorite class,” said Luis Secco, a 29-year-old Columbia student from Rio de Janeiro.

Asked if he was aware of his professor’s other job as the president of U.S. Soccer, the young Brazilian said, “Of course. That’s the other reason why it’s my favorite class.”

Like most college students, Secco Googled the professor’s name when he was considering signing up for Principles of Economics. The first thing he saw was Gulati’s listing on the Columbia website, along with his email address.
The next thing he saw were dozens of articles about Gulati’s appointment to the FIFA executive committee, about the hiring of Klinsmann and about the buildup to the World Cup in Brazil.

“My soccer job comes up from time to time in class — much more the last few years, which says a lot about the popularity of the game increasing,” Gulati said. “If I had asked them in that classroom 20 years ago to name a soccer player other than Pelé, few could have done it. Today, there would be a bunch who knew how Atlético Madrid did over the week and about the incredible goal scored by Cristiano Ronaldo.”

Gulati’s presidency with U.S. Soccer is an unpaid position. The job at Columbia pays the bills (he has a wife and two children) and allows him the flexibility to dedicate the necessary time — “untold hours every week, like a full-time job,” he said — to his role in soccer.

Since starting at U.S. Soccer in 2006, Gulati has logged between 250,000 and 350,000 air miles each year. It is not uncommon for him to return from meetings or matches in Switzerland, Russia, Belgium or somewhere else on the soccer landscape just in time for the start of a Monday morning class.

“U.S. Soccer is a job, but it’s a job of passion,” Gulati said. “I absolutely adore the two things I do. I love walking in front of a classroom and, except for days when we lose games, I love being part of U.S. Soccer.”

He is in the first year of his third, four-year term with the soccer federation. Gulati declined to speculate whether this would be his last term.

As for teaching at Columbia? With a glint in his eye, Gulati mentioned a Lesley Stahl feature on “60 Minutes” that he saw just two days earlier, about people living and thriving past the age of 90.

“I’d probably teach until the end,” he said.

Sunil Gulati on ...

Balancing his Columbia/U.S. Soccer work schedule: “I can schedule soccer business around my class schedule, but if there’s a school conflict with a FIFA meeting or international games, I have to reschedule a class. It’s not easy to reschedule a class when you have 200 students. Inevitably, I’ll end up teaching that one session three different times to accommodate all the students.”

U.S. Soccer’s growth: “I have huge pride in the success of the sport the last decade. We have players participating and business partners in numbers that we haven’t seen before. The challenge is still there. Most days, there’s a lot of joy in it. Then there are days when you’re negotiating a deal or dealing with problems that aren’t fun. The hardest day is when we have a loss in a match, or a tough personnel decision with people I’ve known for a long time.”

A career highlight: “After we beat Algeria to win the group stage in South Africa in 2010, President Bill Clinton extended his stay to go to the next match. He arranged for some of us to meet Nelson Mandela. The president joked, ‘Madiba, this is Sunil Gulati. He’s my boss.’ My family was there; so was Don Garber. That was certainly memorable.”

Budgeting: “Budgeting is not a longest-drive contest. It’s a closest-to-the-pin contest. If you’re well under or well above budget, it’s not a good thing. Budgeting is a planning tool.”

Budgeting at U.S. Soccer: “Sometimes we come well under it — much to my chagrin. We can budget too conservatively. Our returns are not measured by what we’re getting on our money in the bank but by the growth of soccer. I don’t want to be sitting on $50 [million] or $60 [million] or $70 million when we can be reinvesting in the sport — whether it’s in inner-city soccer, referee development, building new facilities or whatever else it could be. Being under budget is not necessarily the goal of a nonprofit. Spending money wisely is.”