From the Issue- Winning in Theory

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For your personal edification, we present another hard-hitting article from the October issue. Out now! It’s sports-tastical!

Columbia University is now offering an MS in Sports Management. This is the punch line. Like the ones about British dentistry schools. “We’ve always been good at the gentlemanly and the ladylike athletics,” Lucas Rubin, the program’s director, admits: “fencing, crew.” Not so much…well, everything else. Why, then, is anyone shelling out $1,132 per credit for a degree from the equivalent of the kid with asthma?

“I would say that there’s a type of stigma,” Rubin told me, on Columbia’s loser reputation, “but the flip side of that is that no one has attempted to do a really top program in sports management at the Ivy League level.” He seems an odd fit for the developer and director of a sports program: a Classics PhD who wears emo-ish glasses (though he does follow National League baseball). Then again, so does the program’s department: Continuing Education. “It does all the non-traditional programs” Rubin said, meaning everything from actuarial science to landscape design. “One of the things we do is develop programs that have substantial areas of interest or merit that are not represented elsewhere in the university,” Rubin said. Working outside the constraints of a standard university department, Continuing Education can make use of the resources from athletics, business, and law to achieve its specific goals. Yet what makes Columbia’s foray questionable is not just its dubious track record employing the skills it now intends to teach, but that sports management programs in general have drawn criticism for being unsuccessful, impractical university cash-cows.

The Wall Street Journal recently summed up the key problems with many sports management programs: too many classes focusing on academic theorizing, too few on practical skills; useless or incoherent required courses, like anatomy and injury-care; professors with little sports experience yanked from other disciplines; and virtually no national standards—standards which, even then, only a small portion of the hundreds of currently operating programs meet. The upshot? Possessing a degree from a sports management program is not going to be much of an asset when it comes to actually getting a job.

How exactly, though, does one go about teaching “management,” of any kind? Joel Brockner, chair of the Columbia Business School’s management division and a big sports fan himself, laid out the basic components of an MBA education: a slew of core classes that touch on the business essentials (accounting, finance, operations, statistics, marketing, organizational behavior) alongside a summer internship in the field. “So, by the end of the first year,” he told me, “students have had broad-based ‘book learning’ and they have had ‘real world’ experience.” This is augmented by in-depth electives during the second year, readying students for any number of careers in the business world. “My rule of thumb,” said Brockner, “is that if one wants to enter virtually any field, including management, it is easier to go from broad-based general training to more specialized training.”

Rubin, however, is not sure that broad is the way for those who are dead-set on a management role in sports. “A manager needs to know about finance and accounting,” he began, “but a lot of these programs teach these big kind of meta-topics in sports that the average manager is never going to interface with. So you can look abstractly at how salary caps work in baseball. But the people that this program is really going to be training are not going to go out and negotiate salary caps. What they really need to know is how to budget an event.”

Graduates of Columbia’s program will know. Its courses—a melange of applied business and law classes, coupled with specialized management training—are focused. To create the curriculum, experts ranging from specialists in sports law to actual operations managers were consulted, “so you end up with a nice blend of the academic and also the very practical.”

But, practically speaking, will the program produce results? “Having top-flight instructors is key,” Joel Brockner admitted, “as is having top-flight fellow students who provide lots of insight, future networks, and sources of support.” Sure, but with the program starting fresh, alumni contacts are sparse at best, and developing job placement tactics is a big project. “This is the toughest thing,” Rubin said. “We can’t guarantee people jobs.”

“I think one of the great kind of lies that goes on,” Rubin revealed, “is that the sports management degree is a way to become an agent—people who don’t have connections, aren’t in the business, don’t have a family that’s working with it.” But in reality, he continued, “sports management is much more geared towards people who want management style positions—you’re equipment manger, you’re a person who’s going to be operations manager for the Cyclones out in Brooklyn.”

I must admit I was skeptical when, while perusing the course catalogue, I came upon “Socio-Historical Foundations of American Sport.” An operations manager needs that course? Surely this was academia at its most gratuitous: space filler for the second-semester senior, not part of a tight, specialized training sequence.

Rubin didn’t stammer. “The idea of that course is basically to make people conversant and knowledgeable about sports. You have people who come into the industry who are football fans, but their first job might be in women’s golf. So the idea is to actually—again it’s very old-school in some ways—teach them a lot about sports and their history, and how they evolved.”

This is a tad misleading. “Foundations” is in no way a greatest hits of sports trivia. Taught by Peter Levine, a retired Michigan State professor and, according to Rubin, “one of the four or five top sports historians,” the course is somewhere between a survey lecture and a topical seminar. The ominous words in the syllabus, “These books will be read in their entirety,” tops a list of 13 volumes. These are not athlete bios, but real academic texts; the first week alone requires six textbook chapters, in addition to 230 pages from The Manly Art: Bare Knuckle Prize Fighting in Nineteenth Century America. Grades are based on class participation, take-home exams, and a final research paper. In other words: an average liberal arts class.

This is Levine’s intent. “I am not interested in pointing the class to any specific matters regarding careers,” he told me. “My concern is to give students the opportunity to explore fundamental issues and questions that place sport as a significant social, cultural, political and economic institution of American life.” One of the two-and-a-half hour sessions on boxing found that a casual rapport had already developed between Levine and his tiny class—two women and twelve men, lots of baseball caps and ties. “When was John L. Sullivan born?” Levine began. He then launched into a semi-lecture, semi-discussion on the cult of masculinity in the nineteenth century, the shift in sports values during the era of their commercialization, and their modern parallels.

Regarding quality, Rubin agrees. “If I could duplicate this class every term, we would have a fabulous program,” he told me. “We would have, you know, a school of sports.” Tell it to the football team.

—Andrew Flynn

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  1. sports managers  

    are gym teachers that didn't go to community college. end of story.

  2. McFister

    Sports Management? Anything to make a quick buck, eg?

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