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Volume 23 No. 29
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There’s freedom in starting over, as long as we choose wisely

Let’s not beat around the bush. It’s mid-October and this much is true: People in sports have lost high-profile jobs because their organizations saw revenue and profitability evaporate during the COVID-19 pandemic and cut (or furloughed) staff.

We have to own that and understand:

1) Others, often younger, who graduated by June and sought to join our field, saw potential options shrivel. Even newly minted MBAs didn’t get snapped up.

2) People who lost jobs or never got one must now develop new skills … like learning a second language, evaluating digital properties, improving data analysis skills, mastering biohazard safety protocols or figuring out esports marketing.

3) Those unwilling to learn new skills will get left behind. To wit, we are in the age of lifelong learning and those who can’t or won’t acquire new skills via digital providers (online, YouTube, audio books, executive education, webinars) may face increasingly difficult times.

All of the above sounds fearsome. Maybe even threatening. 

That’s because self-learning is challenging for many. As is up-skilling or re-skilling.

But inside our warning, there is empowerment and even degrees of freedom. All of us should know, as the late Stephen Covey suggested in “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” we are not the product of our circumstances but the product of our decisions. 

Proactive people choose and influence their outcomes.

We both use Covey’s book as a regular tool in teaching college students, and while books are no longer something young people enjoy (purposeful cynicism noted), not a semester goes by that one of our students doesn’t tell us a particular book changed their life.

Unemployment is also “life changing” and two important aspects of unemployment are learning new tricks and finding that (next) job. 

“As we all strive to learn the skills required to be effective in the future workforce, we must consider that the pursuit of mastery can actually be highly motivating,” offered Damian Hecker, director of learning and development for Australia’s Leaders of Evolution. “Employers want employees who want to learn and can do so quickly.”

Or as Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Becky Frankiewicz wrote in the Harvard Business Review last November, “The reality in today’s digital-first world is that we need to teach every generation how to learn, unlearn, and relearn — quickly — so they can transform the future of work, rather than be transformed by it.”

But there’s a third component: The American belief that everyone is entitled to happiness. 

COVID-19 has made few people happy — although working from home has eliminated tiresome commutes and cramped open-office settings. Plus, the kitchen is only seconds away.

Happiness, however, is a dangerous concept and many people right now can’t afford to worry about it. They need to pay bills.  

In his 2008 book “The Geography of Bliss,” Eric Weiner went looking for the happiest places on Earth. Some involved opulence and security (Switzerland, Qatar). Others offered fewer restrictions (the Netherlands, Thailand) or were small and remote (Bhutan, Iceland). All were places where procuring more money did not seem to dominate national aspirations. 

A self-described pessimist, Weiner discovered money didn’t automatically generate contentment. It helped, but as economist E. F. Schumacher suggests in the book, “The richer the society, the more difficult it becomes to do worthwhile things without immediate payoff.”

In other words, many folks need productivity to get rich or stay rich. And, for some of us, only the utilitarian value of working in sports gives our lives value. To not work 60 hours a week in our industry would equal unhappiness. 

As of March 12, that single-minded approach came under enormous threat.

Weiner offers in the Bhutan chapter that “in America, high expectations are the engines that drive us, the gas in our tanks, the force behind our dreams and, by extension, our pursuit of happiness.” A few pages earlier, while visiting Switzerland, he referenced the term “conjoyment” which is “something more than mere contentment but less than full-on joy.” 

Pleased but calm. Not manic or always chasing our tails. Grounded.

Emotions are tricky, though. In Susan David’s 2016 book “Emotional Agility,” she said emotions were more like data points but shouldn’t be the drivers. They are an important part of our collective awareness, insight, proactive thought, and choice.

As columnists, we can’t begin to suggest that anyone who is unemployed because of the pandemic should bail out on their financial obligations and head for the Himalayas to find tranquility. Or give up on sport and seek work at Amazon (although Amazon may soon drive the sports world). 

In the end, COVID-19 should give people the chance to ask what is really important and what enough looks like. 

If we go back to the economist Schumacher, he noted, “There are poor societies which have too little. But where is the rich society that says ‘Halt! We have enough!’ There is none.” 

In sport, we’ve probably had “enough” for a long time. 

Still, some of us are about to find our next gig features a lot of time off, a different industry, or going back to online school. 

So, let’s be clear: There’s nothing wrong with that. But during this time of collective challenge and “new different,” keep reading SBJ and thinking about how you can modify your skills for the future.


Rick Burton is the David Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University and former commissioner of Australia’s National Basketball League. Norm O’Reilly is director of the International Institute for Sport Business, University of Guelph and a partner consultant at the T1 Agency in Toronto.

Questions about OPED guidelines or letters to the editor? Email editor Jake Kyler at