Business of Sports minor must feature social responsibility lessons

| Senior Sports Editor

Two weeks ago, the Olin Business School formally launched its new Business of Sports minor with a speech by Golden State Warriors owner Joe Lacob in Bauer Hall’s Frick Forum. Lacob recently donated $1 million to the school toward the minor.

I am certainly grateful to Lacob for his generosity, which has allowed me to enroll in this semester’s initial course offering of the sports business minor. If the NBA’s recent $24-billion television deal is any indication, the sports industry is a booming domain deserving of increased study, and Washington University could become a national leader.

I attended Lacob’s talk eager to hear his opinion on another issue that has dominated the NBA news cycle for the past several months. I asked what impact the franchise sales of Donald Sterling and Bruce Levenson after both made racially charged comments has had on the dynamic of NBA ownership.

Lacob spoke strongly against Sterling, saying that the disgraced ex-Los Angeles Clippers owner “had to go. Period. End of story.” But to begin his answer, Lacob whipped out his phone, displayed it to the crowd and cautioned that anything recorded or sent in text is “discoverable.”

“We all have to be responsible for our actions and how we act both publicly and privately,” Lacob said.

Lacob’s interpretation was unsurprising but nonetheless greatly revealing—and a bit disappointing.

Sterling, who made his money in real estate, settled the largest housing discrimination lawsuit in federal Department of Justice history. This was years before the league outed him for making incendiary comments to V. Stiviano.

The tragedy of the Sterling scandal is how little the exposure of his private racism teaches us about institutionalized racism. I don’t have the space to fully explain here, but readers should watch the Deadspin video “In 10 Minutes, ESPN’s Bomani Jones Lays Waste To The Sterling Issue” to gain a fuller perspective.

The lesson for people in power post-Sterling has not been to avoid the kind of vicious housing discrimination that is linked to abject poverty, deplorable education and runaway incarceration in our cities. Instead, it has been to avoid saying dumb things that may be unearthed from the Cloud, sold to TMZ or discovered on email chains (ironically, Lacob’s co-owner, Peter Guber, had precisely the latter happen when he sent an organization-wide email saying he must learn to speak “hoodish” to communicate with his players).

The NBA never punished Sterling for housing discrimination, so I don’t blame Lacob for his response to the fallout. Still, one of sports’ more respectable owners having the limited take he did before Wash. U.’s future business leaders of America and the world is telling of systemic problems.

Whether willfully or not, the corporate community that runs sports has an undeniable blind spot when it comes to social responsibility. For all the joy that sports can bring to communities, the reality of the business is often far more cynical.

Across the nation, owners are squeezing unnecessary public funds out of cities for stadium projects with less socioeconomic benefit than advertised. Construction of Olympic and World Cup stadiums leads to worker deaths and mass evictions while losing money for the countries that host the events.

On the contrary, Lacob is one of the good guys in sports management. He has brought a winning team to the Warriors’ fan base, announced plans for a new arena in San Francisco that is completely privately funded and hired the first openly gay, high-ranking American sports executive, team president Rick Welts.

Earlier this week, I spoke with Todd Milbourn, Olin’s associate dean of faculty and the professor in charge of implementing the sports business minor, about whether the minor would include a course on the social impact of sports business. He said that as of now, it is not in the plans, though classes may feature related discussion.

Indeed, the introductory Business of Sports course being offered this semester has brought up themes of public stadium financing, Division I college athlete compensation and other such issues. But topics like these—and ensuring sports’ productive role in communities—must become a core focus of the program. I encourage Milbourn and others involved with the curriculum to adjust it accordingly and look to include a required course on social responsibility.

If not, the program will fail to provide students who will one day have major influence in the industry with the comprehensive education it promises.