Magazine Preview: Sunil Gulati’s Double Life

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Illustration by Abigail Santner

The latest issue has hit campus!  Look for it in most dorms and public spaces.  Today, Bwog Editor Emeritus Jim Downie investigates the other half of Sunil Gulati’s life.

It’s a beautiful August day in Mexico City. The temperature is a balmy 78 degrees; the lung-choking smog is blown away by a cool breeze. In short, it’s a great day for an American to visit.

Or it would be, if not for the 105,000 crazed fans packed inside the Estadio Azteca, the crown jewel of Mexican soccer. Millions more are packed around café televisions, all eager to see their beloved El Tri take on the hated gringos from north of the border. And tensions are running high: a place in the 2010 World Cup is at stake. In the words of one sports writer, “Michael Vick could crash a PETA rally and get a friendlier reception than the Americans did at Azteca.” For United States Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati, whose suite was the target of thrown soft drinks, batteries, and other doses of hospitality, it’s a far cry from the main venue of the other half of his life – 501 Schermerhorn.

Columbia does not lack professors whose renown extends outside academia, but, unlike most of these notables, Gulati’s on-campus identity is entirely separate from his off campus self. Within the Columbia bubble, he’s a popular lecturer in the economics department. His yearly section of Principles of Economics routinely draws a couple hundred students to Schermerhorn’s largest lecture hall, and his closing remarks each semester set the standard for other professors. Off campus, he’s just been re-elected president of the United States Soccer Federation, the American governing body for the world’s most popular sport.

“The two lives don’t intersect very often,” Gulati says in his IAB office, surrounded by athletic memorabilia. “Every now and then, I’m able to use an example from my work in soccer in one of my economics classes, but in general they’re quite separate.” Still, he has used his sports connections to attract guest speakers ranging from NBA Commissioner David Stern to Nike President Tom Clark to his seminar on the economics of sports, and his position with the USSF hasn’t only interested students, but faculty as well. Gulati acknowledges that Columbia’s international character helps – “The average faculty member is more interested in the sport here than, say, at Nebraska.”

Becoming USSF president “was never planned,” Gulati says. Born in Allahabad, India, his family moved to the United States when he was three years old. He began to work for the USSF in the early 1980s, when the sport was struggling to stay afloat. While a graduate student at Columbia in the late 1980s, “I was basically running the men’s national team program off a Mac. When I went to the World Bank, which was the plan, the World Cup came to the United States, and the federation said to me, ‘Hey, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – why don’t you come work for us?'”

“Obviously,” he hastens to add, “now we hope it’s not a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” referring to his next big project: bringing the World Cup back to the United States in 2018 or 2022. In the meantime, though, Gulati will join millions of fellow fans in eagerly awaiting this year’s cup. For those students out there still unsure whether they’ll tune in, Gulati offers this advice: “Our world is becoming increasingly globalized, and if they want a way to communicate with people around the world, soccer is a great way to so. Also, I don’t think any sporting event can compare to the World Cup — except my kids’ rec games.”

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  1. Anonymous  

    why isn't gulati teaching principles of econ next semester?!

  2. I know  

    he is busy with his other side of life next semester ;)


    he is such an amazing professor.. he is the only reason i am trying to study my ass off for this economics midterm :)

  3. copy editor  

    Allahabad, not Allhalabad

  4. Anonymous  

    yes, gulati's a good teacher, but you must mention that the principles of econ is a required course for all engineers.

  5. Anonymous  


  6. Wow...  

    "...and his closing remarks each semester set the standard for other professors."

    right, because no one has get more self-righteous than him. he just admitted to how pompous and douchey he is. nothing particularly splendid or enlightening in his speech (he was pompous and douchey throughout the course).

    i did, however, like how he asked everyone to put down their pencils/pens or close their laptops. perhaps he wanted no one to record his speech. uggh, the arrogance.

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