Knowledge is Power: How Can We Contribute to Social Justice in Divisive Times?

Editors’ note: The following post is intended to be a conversation starter amongst NASSM members and blog readers regarding this timely sport issue. We strongly encourage readers to contribute to a thoughtful and respectful dialogue on this topic by writing your comments on this post. Please check back often to view additional comments and responses!

Christine E. Wegner, Ph.D. – University of Florida
John N. Singer, Ph.D. – Texas A & M University

redskins-protest-signsThe year 2016 has seen a number of events and incidents in organized sport that speak to social injustices in the United States in particular, from Colin Kaepernick’s protest of the systemic racism within the criminal justice system, to the reactions of both the NBA and the NCAA in the wake of North Carolina’s Hb2 law. As more and more perspectives join the conversation about social justice, we should be reminded of George Cunningham’s 2014 Zeigler lecture, calling for ways to support and create social justice both through and in sport. Given the increasing gravity of recent events, sport management scholars and researchers need to become part of the current conversation, offering their knowledge to the intersection between sport and social justice, through immediate action in the community.

We are quick to recall the importance of sport in our lives when we seek to justify our existence as a field. Therefore, when this importance serves as a platform for fighting injustice, we owe it to ourselves to reinforce that platform, a charge we too often have left to sport sociologists. As Wendy Frisby suggested in her 2005 Ziegler lecture, sport management, with a unit of analysis as the organization, can be an important part of the ongoing dialogue. What is happening today is such a force, in part, because of the power of organizations, and specifically the power of organizing in sport. We therefore must find new modes through which to engage with and contribute to the current conversation.

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In in a keynote address at the 2016 North American Society for the Sociology of Sport (NASSS) Conference, Harry Edwards talked about the critical difference for scholars and researchers engaging with the activism of athletes in the 1960s and those of today. The pace of the 24-hour news cycle and the actions and perspectives created constantly through social media outlets shrink the temporal window for current scholars and researchers. Writing journal articles about today’s climate, attitudes, and actions are a vital reflection of process, change, and social inquiry. However, those articles, whose contributions are slowed by the submission process, can rarely ever be part of the current dialogue, the crucial discourse that is so fundamental to progress and social change.

Discourse can be hard. It can be painful. It can force us to reflect on our privilege. Our failings. Our humanity and lack thereof. But it is necessary. In a world where ignorance has found a powerful faucet in social media, we as individuals who know history, politics and theory, owe it to the future that we teach to be a part of the immediate discourse as well, and to counter some of this ignorance.

Just as the events of the past few months and even weeks have no doubt found their way into classroom discourse as teachable moments and opportunities for dialogue, we need to continually find ways to engage in the current climate in real time. For example, Joseph Cooper’s Collective Uplift at the University of Connecticut, works to educate and empower student athletes of color directly.  As another example, organizations such as RISE combine managers, athletes, activists, and educators in its efforts toward social progress. And many programs and organizations already rely on our expertise as researchers to assess both their efficacy and understand the sources of change.

icant-breatheBut this is more than a call to join in these efforts.  We also hope to start a dialogue about innovative ways we can be a part of the social justice movement, especially in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential campaign and U.S. election, which has left many emboldened to openly discriminate, and others in fear of their rights and lives. Where are the spaces and opportunities in which we can insert ourselves into the national and international conversation, given the role of sport and sport organizations in our world today? How can we incorporate collective action into our research to make it meaningful immediately, in addition to the knowledge it generates through our studies, manuscripts, and conference presentations?

Please join the conversation and post your thoughts on this topic below!

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Paying it Back: The McCormack Octagon Bowl

By Elizabeth Delia, Ph.D.

As current or former students, we all have classes we look back on with fond memories: the class that eloquently combined classroom and experiential learning; the class that challenged us to think outside the box; the class that ignited our competitive spirit; the class that makes us proud to call ourselves alums. For graduate students enrolled in the Masters program in the McCormack Department of Sport Management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass), one such class is Sport Marketing and the Octagon Bowl.

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Each fall semester for the past decade, the graduate Sport Marketing class at UMass has partnered with the global sports and entertainment agency Octagon for what has been termed the Octagon Bowl. Students in the class work in groups on a semester long project with Octagon to create an integrated marketing campaign for a real-world Octagon client. Following the Octagon Bowl, Octagon incorporates ideas from the student groups into the actual campaign, illustrating the value Octagon places on the work of the students.

This year’s project is with Mastercard, in conjunction with the company’s sponsorship of the British Open, and will conclude with the 2016 Octagon Bowl on December 16. During the Octagon Bowl, students present their proposed campaigns to a panel of judges comprised of representatives from Octagon and Mastercard, who question each group of presenters and then vote on a winner. The presentations test the knowledge, preparedness, and professionalism of the students. As Dr. Matt Katz, the instructor of the course, commented, “The judges are tough. They come to campus and expect professional presentations with professional insight. Their questions are challenging, and their expectations are high. We have mock presentations, ‘dress rehearsals’ of sorts where we record a practice presentation and force the students to evaluate themselves, and we try and simulate the types of questions the judges will ask. It makes for a great learning experience because our students know the level of excellence expected from them – and they prepare accordingly.”

This year’s panel of judges is relatively unique, as it includes Michael Goldstein and Noah Kolodny, both graduates of the UMass MBA/MS Sport Management program. Goldstein graduated from the program in 2007 and is now Vice President of Global Sponsorships at Mastercard. Kolodny graduated from the program in 2006 and is now Vice President at Octagon Marketing. In addition to their participation in the Octagon Bowl as professionals, both Goldstein and Kolodny participated in the Octagon Bowl as UMass graduate students.

“The Octagon-UMass relationship has been a win-win partnership,” Kolodny commented in reflecting on the Octagon Bowl. “Octagon has provided the UMass students an opportunity to gain real world experience in developing 360-degree marketing programs for leading corporate sponsors including Mastercard. Throughout our decade-long partnership, students have been given the opportunity to demonstrate research abilities, creative thinking, and written communication and presentation skills. Our agency has been able to leverage the students’ strategic thinking to enhance our clients’ initiatives and generate innovative solutions.”

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2015 Octagon Bowl winners with representatives from Octagon and UMass

Providing students with experiential learning opportunities prepares them to enter into the sport industry as professionals, but the case of the McCormack Octagon Bowl shows us how such learning opportunities do more than just that. As Kolodny noted, “The benefits [of the partnership] are not limited to specific projects. The partnership has helped Octagon and our clients to identify and foster the next generation of marketers and strategists.”

The Octagon Bowl illustrates how experiential learning can allow students to realize the value of their educational experiences, such that as they progress upward in their professional careers, they remain connected to their alma mater, allowing alumni networks to thrive. These networks are not only advantageous in the industry, but also back “home” at the university as well. These networks motivate our former students to periodically turn to their alma mater and pay it back.