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Can sports betting and academics coexist?

Feb 20, 2019 3:01 AM

Ken Shropshire has been educated and has worked at some of the nation’s leading academic institutions. But when it comes to sports betting, he admits he has a lot to learn.

Shropshire, who oversees the Global Sport Institute at Arizona State University, said there’s so much to learn on the subject.

“We’re in the first grade,” Shropshire said of learning about the roles and implications of sports betting in society. The proliferation of legal wagering on athletic events is sure to open doors to areas of research and study.

Seven states — New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Mississippi, West Virginia, Delaware, Rhode Island and New Mexico — have joined Nevada in allowing legal sports wagering. Sports business journalist Darren Rovell predicted that number would grow to 13 by the end of this year, 20 by the end of 2020 and 31 in 2021.

Shropshire said the institute is just starting to scratch the surface on the topic of sports betting.

The dam on national sports gambling broke when NBA commissioner Adam Silver wrote about it in The New York Times in 2014, Shropshire said.

“I believe that sports betting should be brought out of the underground and into the sunlight where it can be appropriately monitored and regulated,” Silver wrote in what was a big departure from major-league sports’ public reaction to sports betting.

“(Then) the Supreme Court decision broke it all the way down,” Shropshire said.

The high court’s decision, in a 6-3 ruling last May, paved the way for states outside Nevada to legalize sports gambling. The court struck down a 1992 federal law that prohibited most states from accepting wagers on sports.

The GSI was established by Shropshire in 2017. It took some convincing on the part of Arizona State to lure him from the University of Pennsylvania’s The Wharton School, one of the country’s most prestigious business schools, after 30 years. The Sun Devils’ athletic director, Ray Anderson, a teammate of Shropshire’s at Stanford, was instrumental in getting his old friend to come back out west.

Cutting a deal

Shropshire first met ASU president Michael Crow when he was negotiating Anderson’s deal with the school.

“The president was trying to figure out a way to look at sport differently,” Shropshire said.

Shropshire had a two-year-long conversation with Crow. His time at The Wharton School shaped what he envisioned at Arizona State.

“My path to tenure was in sports law issues, anti-trust, franchise relocation, discrimination in sport,” Shropshire said. “Social issues were limited to the business school.”

Crow agreed to university-wide buy-in on what Shropshire wanted to do. Still, the professor was hesitant to uproot himself and move across the country. That’s when Anderson reached out again.

Shropshire and the athletic director met with Mark King, then president of Adidas North America. After hearing the presentation, King bought in, and Adidas was on board.

“It was (Adidas’) first philanthropic endeavor for academics,” Shropshire said. “We have a lot of engagement with them.”

Adidas invested millions in a unique relationship with a university — unlike others such as Nike’s arrangement with the University of Oregon. The company and university teamed up to form the Global Sports Alliance to study sports in culture and how it can be a catalyst for discussion and transformation.

“Sport is so much bigger than the game,” Adidas North America president Zion Armstrong said in a statement to the university. “It brings people together like nothing else and provides the opportunity to make real, positive change for our world. 

“Through our partnership with ASU, we are excited to explore new ideas around topics like diversity and race, sustainability and human potential.”

Plan comes together

Shropshire’s vision was coming to life. He was a junior at Stanford when he realized he would never be an NFL player. But he knew his future lay in sports.

“I didn’t have the mental fortitude to keep pushing the way you know guys have to do to be successful at the highest level of sports,” Shropshire told the website The Shadow League last year. “Also, I began to understand that there were a lot more opportunities to work in pro sports other than simply being a player, and that was simply being a by-product of having ended up at Stanford.”

After his Cardinal career, Shropshire moved on to Columbia Law School, graduating in 1980. That experience spawned ideas about different avenues he could take in the sports world.

After brief spells as an agent and on the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee, Shropshire spent three decades at the The Wharton School, where he was professor emeritus and director of the Wharton Sports Business Initiative.

Today, he is leading a more far-reaching endeavor. The GSI works with many different schools and departments across the university. Most important to Shropshire, this involves subjects beyond the business or athletics department. He’s pursuing research and discussion on a variety of questions that revolve around sports: “Is Gatorade better than water? or “What are the chances of your kid turning pro?” or “Does the NFL’s ‘Rooney Rule’ work?”

“Strategically, we’re physically located in Scottsdale (a Phoenix suburb),” Shropshire said. “We are charged with engaging with as much of the university as possible.”

Wide-ranging faculty

ASU’s Global Sports Affiliated Faculty, a long list of professors, researchers and others on campus, is aligned with the GSI’s goals: conducting original research, publishing in academic journals, presenting at conferences and seminars. Schools and colleges of Health Solutions, Social and Behavioral Sciences, Psychology, Philosophy and Journalism — among others — are involved.

For the 2018-19 academic year, the GSI’s annual theme is “Race and Sports Around the Globe.” It was kicked off with a September round-table discussion involving 1968 Olympians Wyomia Tyus and John Carlos and former NFL punter Chris Kluwe, a social activist.

Earlier this month the institute hosted a discussion of the documentary “The Renaissance Period of the African-American in Sports.” The panel included Herbert Douglas, the oldest living African-American Olympic medalist, and Harrison Dillard, the oldest living American gold medalist. Douglas and Dillard competed in the London games in 1948.

The institute will examine race and its role in sports, including perspective, participation, access, fan behavior, and representation. .

“We had a whole year of events relating to social issues,” Shropshire said. “All of (the speakers) were involved in classroom settings, and we did a report at the Super Bowl.”

Kluwe, who spent seven seasons with the Minnesota Vikings, became a writer and outspoken supporter of same-sex marriage and gay rights after his retirement in 2013. He has also been a vocal backer of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protests, a topic the institute has looked at.

No limit to issues

But there are many more issues the GSI has focused on — “400 or so NFL projects beyond kneeling,” Shropshire said.

In 2018, the GSI looked at helping NFL players manage their personal finances, NCAA diversity programs, student-athlete mental health, Latina teens’ participation in school-based sports among other subjects.

Shropshire is committed to making academics the primary factor in the student-athlete equation. In his book “The Miseducation of the Student Athlete: How to Fix College Sports,” co-authored with Collin D. Williams Jr., Shropshire argued that players should be paid.

“There is, especially with the merger of conferences, especially with the big-media-dollar infusion that’s taken place over the past several years, money exists,” Shropshire told AZCentral last March. “We know how much the coaches are being paid. We know how much athletic directors are being paid. It is a thing about a re-shifting of the dollars to go to the labor that’s doing the work, that’s delivering the product. But not to think about, so much, paychecks to them. But thinking about, ‘What’s the biggest investment you can make in these individuals?’ And that is, in my mind, education.”

‘Student-Athlete Manifesto’

Shropshire and Williams cited research that shows it has become increasingly difficult for student-athletes to balance academics and athletics. 

Considering that less than 2 percent of college football and basketball players advance to professional careers in their sport, the balancing act can lead to economic, professional and emotional consequences for young people.

The authors came up with “The Student-Athlete Manifesto” with the goal of helping students be successful on and off the field.

“I think the right thing to do in all these decisions is everybody has the right to earn a living as soon as they can,” Shropshire said.

In January, Shropshire took part in the Sports Betting Summit at the South Point Hotel and Casino.

The GSI partnered with VSiN and SeventySix Capital on the event, which covered technology, media and the growth of sports gambling.

At GSI, the sports betting industry figures to be an important part of the curriculum going forward.

Wayne Kimmel, managing partner of SeventySix Capital, believes Shropshire’s involvement could be a boon to the gaming and tech industries.

“Ken is one of the foremost leaders and thinkers in sports business in general,” Kimmel said. “He truly wrote the book on sports and business. When he starts working on something, people take notice.

“I think (GSI’s involvement) could be really helpful. The future of sports betting is technology. If you’re going to study the future, you’re going to study data collection and data analysis. Everything will be enhanced by technology.”

 

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