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Volume 22 No. 7

Opinion

George Bodenheimer is one of the most respected leaders in the sports business over the past 30 years. I’ve never heard one negative word uttered about him, and people who worked for him unanimously praise him as a humble leader who created a positive and productive culture at ESPN. He and I talked for 45 minutes last week at our Intercollegiate Athletics Forum in New York about culture and leadership, and his comments generated some of the most positive feedback I received all year.

 

The stories about Bodenheimer starting in ESPN’s mailroom in 1981 are well documented, and he acknowledged that when you deliver everyone’s mail, “you end up meeting everybody.”

 

After 17 years of moving up through the company, he was named president in 1998. But his style didn’t change.

 

“Just because I had become president didn’t mean I became a lot smarter overnight.” 

 

Instead of telling staff how to do their jobs, he focused on the culture. 

 

“I thought of myself as a servant leader. How can I help you do your job better? Let me get you the resources you need.”

 

He had a clear definition of what culture represented at ESPN.

You show your people you care about them? That’s power. That is how people will go through a wall for anybody. That’s when you get the best out of people — when you show them you have their back.
George Bodenheimer
From the Intercollegiate Athletics Forum

“It’s what you stand for. Integrity. A handshake is a deal. No legal department is going to screw up a handshake. Dealing with people in a straightforward manner. Were we aggressive? Yes. Were we trying to be the best in the business? Yes. Were we trying to get a first-mover advantage in whatever business we were in? You better believe it. But there is a way of doing that with integrity and doing things the right way.”

 

Bodenheimer recalled his first all-staff meeting as president as a key learning point. “My first-ever speech to the company, on the ‘SportsCenter’ set, broadcast all over the world. I was going to take questions, the whole bit. I had worked so hard on it; I memorized every number. I could have told you what our growth was going to be anywhere around the world. I gave the most boring speech possibly in corporate history. I can’t believe anyone was still around after about 40 minutes of nothing, and we open up the phone lines.” Instead of questions about ESPN’s business, he was startled when the questions were about why the company still used Styrofoam in the cafeteria, or asking for better lights in the parking lot at night and about the lack of day care. “I had no answers. Boy, was that one of the most valuable of all possible corporate comeuppance lessons of all time. It taught me on my very first week as president of this great company that you pay attention to what is important to your people.”

 

He said leaders must have more than the business qualifications to be successful.

 

“You better pay attention to what is important to your people,” he said, adding, “You show your people you care about them? That’s power. That is how people will go through a wall for anybody. That’s when you get the best out of people — when you show them you have their back. I learned that lesson during that first meeting. That was a big-time wake-up call.”

 

He also stressed listening to the ideas of fellow employees.

 

“I wanted ideas from everybody in the company. I used to really come down hard on people who wouldn’t take meetings or give proper due to people who had ideas that they wanted to talk to management about. It’s our jobs to listen to our people, and there are good ideas that come up from the organization.”

 

He believes such idea sharing sparks innovation, and if you’re able to embed innovation within the culture of a company, you’ve found the holy grail for business.

 

“You talk about innovation. You reward it. You don’t punish mistakes. You encourage everyone to give ideas to help the company. Because when an idea bubbles up that ends up becoming a big thing, that word spreads like wildfire when you give credit where credit is due, and you reward the right people. Listen to your people. Don’t think you’ve got all the good ideas.”

 

Humble, powerful and worthy words from a servant leader.

 

Abraham Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com.

In the immediate aftermath of the Oct. 27 massacre of 11 people at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, professional sports teams in the city and around the country began offering expressions of sympathy and support to the local community. It is a familiar role that major league sports has played in helping people regain a sense of normalcy after tragedy strikes. But are these responses, often cast in the frame of social responsibility, enough to meet the challenge of today’s turbulent times?

In Pittsburgh, the Steelers held a moment of silence prior to the start of their game at Heinz Field the day after the shooting and a modified version of the team’s logo — with a yellow Star of David substituted for the yellow astroid — began making its way around social media. The Pirates, in MLB offseason mode, issued a supportive statement, sent representatives to the city’s peace rally and donated a total of $50,000 to local Jewish and public safety organizations. Before their first game at PPG Paints Arena following the shooting, the Penguins — who funded $25,000 donations to both the local Jewish Federation and the City of Pittsburgh Department of Public Safety, and displayed a jersey patch with the team logo in the shape of the Star of David — held a ceremonial puck drop, observed 11 seconds of silence and presented a video tribute.

These acts showed the power of sports as a platform to send a message. They also provided a space for people to begin to overcome feelings of disillusion and reaffirm the basic values of a healthy society in the pivot toward a “new normal.” And they served as a reminder about the social responsibility of organizations.

For the past 30 years, in sports as much as any industry, what most people call “social responsibility” has generally centered on community relations and philanthropy. It has been directed toward the “social.” It is now beginning to center on the “responsibility.” This focus is redefining the tasks and practices of professional sports organizations and, as a matter of course, it is reorienting the cultures and structures of the organizations themselves.

Many organizations still slot social responsibility initiatives in either a department of the same name, a community relations office or a corporate foundation, and then go on with business as usual. But the ones that design and deploy these initiatives for encoding in the way they do business are the ones growing their fan bases, now and for the future. They are taking on the tough task of uniting financial performance with contribution to society — the real meaning of “corporate social responsibility.”

One example of a sports organization doing its part in this way — and specific to combating antisemitism, racism and other forms of hatred and intolerance — can be found in an initiative from Chelsea Football Club.

Chelsea’s “Say No To Antisemitism” campaign kicked off earlier this year when owner Roman Abramovich published a message in a match-day program — an act that speaks volumes especially given that  he generally refrains from making public comments. It was followed by a pregame ceremony including the pitch’s center circle being covered with a banner promoting the campaign, along with video and images of team personnel, fans and prominent community figures appearing on the big screens around the team’s home at Stamford Bridge. All in all, rather standard fare for a campaign by a sports team interested in tackling a social issue of concern to decent people. And perhaps more so given that Abramovich and several club officials are Jewish.

Chelsea puts its message front and center on the pitch and seeks an educational — rather than punitive — approach.

But the motivation for the campaign actually has a good deal more to do with Chelsea being among the English Premier League clubs that own some history of supporter groups with antisemitic tendencies and a belief that educating people can make a meaningful difference.

Since the start of the campaign, the club has welcomed Holocaust survivors to share their experiences with players, coaching staff and supporter groups. It also has sent chairman Bruce Buck, director Eugene Tenenbaum, coach Jody Morris and former manager Avram Grant to lead a delegation at the annual March of the Living at the Nazi concentration and extermination camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau. And it has funded and organized visits to those camps for supporter groups, with plans for more trips going forward. Another part of the campaign offers fans who have engaged in antisemitic behaviors an opportunity to take up educational experiences sponsored by the club.

This all is a turn on the traditional response by sports teams to suspend or ban misbehaving fans from the stadium. Educating people — rather than cutting them off — produces a greater range of benefits to the club, supporters, community and society because it upholds basic values.

Putting values out in front and making them an apparent part of the business is what fans, supporters and the public are demanding more of from sports organizations. Social responsibility and social impact are going to be greater drivers of that movement.

Our society too often pretends to care about challenging hatred and intolerance. We still need reactive responses like the ones provided in Pittsburgh by the Steelers, Pirates and Penguins. But we also need proactive responses such as the one Chelsea is carrying out.

Professional sports teams will increasingly mobilize their status and meaning to call people, organizations and institutions to the responsibility to take action against those evils. While no campaign or initiative will eliminate hate-based acts, they can educate people in ways that lessen the frequency and intensity of them. They will be a significant way of meeting a critical challenge of today’s times and helping shape a better tomorrow.

Lee Igel is a professor in the Tisch Institute for Global Sport at New York University. He also serves as department liaison to the United States Conference of Mayors — Mayors Professional Sports Alliance.