Friday, March 28, 2014

A potential game changer for college sports: Unionized athletes

Kain Colter, the outgoing quarterback at Northerwestern
Yesterday, Michael Tarm of the Associated Press reported on the National Labor Relations Board's ruling Northwestern University can create the first-ever union of college athletes.  While the ruling only applies to Northwestern, it has the potential to dramatically alter the landscape of college athletics, athletic department budgets, and the experience of student-athletes.
that football players at

At the core of the decision was the question of whether football players at Northwestern qualify as "employees" of the university?  In his ruling, Peter Sung Ohr, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) regional director argued that the players meet the two major criteria for employees:  first, they are "compensated" through athletic scholarships and, secondly, they are under the strict and direct managerial control of coaches and athletic administrators.  In his 24-page decision, he went on to say that players are "identified and recruited . . . because of their football prowess and not because of their academic achievement," citing a lack of any real evidence that scholarship players are ever allowed to put academics first by missing games or practices in order to attend to academic obligations.

These are murky waters that Northwestern's players union, as well as the NCAA and all of its member institutions, are wading into.  College sports have long been held up as a model of amateurism and are viewed by many as the pure and wholesome alternative to the greed and commercialism of professional sports (this is particularly true at this time of year when the country is caught up in the romance and drama of the NCAA men's basketball tournament with its narratives of the underdog school and players who play for the love of the game).  So, if unionizing were to become widespread among college athletes, fans may not be so quick to view them as the noble, self-sacrificing "student-athletes" that are portrayed in the NCAA's recent marketing campaigns.

At the same time, Kain Colter (a former Northwestern quarterback,who has been the public face and leader of the push), his teammates, and their supporters have a fair argument.  For athletes participating in "revenue sports" (e.g. football and men's basketball), their lives look a lot like a professional athlete in that their in-season time commitment approaches that of a full-time employee, they do receive compensation (though minimal) for their involvement, and their lives are very highly structured by coaches who dictate how they spend their time and what other activities they are involved in.  In short, they look a lot like institutional employees, but without many of the protections that an employee in another part of the institution might have (e.g. coverage of "work-related" medical expenses).

At this point, the goals of the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA), which is the group that will represent the union, are to ensure coverage of sports-related medical expenses, advocate for policy changes that will help to reduce head injuries, and to begin discussions about the possibility of allowing college athletes to pursue commercial sponsorships.  It's this last one that will raise eyebrows, again, because it calls into question the notion of amateurism that has made college athletics palatable, even when its dark side has reared its head.

For the time being, this ruling only effects private institutions, and only football and men's basketball players on those campuses.  But, like ESPN legal analyst Lester Munson has pointed out (+Lester Munson), the ruling could quickly snowball to effect a much broader range of institutions.

There is a fundamental tension at the heart of this issue between protecting the rights of athletes and preserving the romanticism of amateur college athletes.  Is this the beginning of the end for amateurism in college sports?  Just a necessary protection for college athletes?  Which side of the fence do you come down on?  Which side of the issue should be more heavily weighted?

Friday, March 21, 2014

I don't want a perfect president

Last Tuesday, President Henry B. Eyring, first vice chairman of the BYU Board of Trustees announced the Kevin J. Worthen as the next president of BYU.  It was an exciting day and people seem excited and optimistic about the future here on campus.
appointment of

I was in the meeting when the announcement was made, and happened to be sitting next to a neighbour and friend who knows President Worthen quite well.  As soon as the meeting was over, and again as we were walking back to our offices on campus, my friend said:  "I've never seen him take a misstep."  

Typically, when something like that is said about a person, it is meant to be laudatory.  The message is "Here is a person who doesn't screw things up (or at least not publicly)."  Usually, we say things like this about people who we like, who we trust, and who we want others to see as competent.  So, in that sense, it was a perfectly reasonable thing for my friend to say about someone who he looks up to and sees as a great leader.

But, to be honest, I would have been much more impressed had I heard something like:  "Once I saw him take a misstep (and it was pretty bad), but then this is what he did to acknowledge it and try and fix it."  The reality is that every leader makes mistakes.  Most are behind the scenes and minor enough that they don't impact the organization on a general level, and no one ever knows about them.  But, occasionally (and I would argue at least once in every leader's tenure), they will take a major misstep.  They'll say something stupid, make a prediction that isn't just way off but that leads to losses, or make some other kind of decision that is highly public and, in hindsight, highly inadvisable.

When that happens, I'm much more interested in being led by someone who has learned to respond well in those situations (as I've argued before here).  As helpful as it is for the media and others to perpetuate the narrative of how skilled, competent and seemingly perfect President Worthen is, I'm waiting to hear stories of missteps, mistakes, and what he has done in the past when that has happened.  That narrative is much more telling and, I think, can build more confidence than sanitized stories of how everything a leader touches turns to gold.

Friday, March 14, 2014

We're not all Paul Ryan or Aaron Osmond: An argument for supporting all parents and all children

Last Thursday, in his remarks at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Republican Senator +Paul Ryan (Wisconsin) took aim at free school lunch programs, using them as an example of the way in which the left offers "a full stomach, and an empty soul."  His remarks seem to imply that children who eat school lunches (whether they're subsidized or not) have parents who love them a little less than their best friend who brings her sandwich and apple in a nice brown paper sack (In a deliciously ironic move, he finished the speech by relating a story that was originally told by Laura Schroff, who I heard speak two weeks ago and who is actually an advocate for the programs Ryan seems to despise).

Ryan's remarks fit the pattern I've observed a number of times, from various politicians, over the last year or so.  The narrative goes something like this:    "The [opposition party] is morally wrong for providing free [fill in the blank].  Parents who take advantage of this [fill in the blank with federally subsidized program of your choice] are bad parents.  Good parents do [fill in the blank with what your "good parents" did to make you into the moral role model you are today].

A supporting case (or two) -- last summer, Utah State Senator +Aaron Osmond proposed that mandatory school attendance be abolished because it encourages parents to shirk their responsibility to educate their children (a view I've critiqued here).  He softened his stance somewhat later in 2013 and offered up a modified proposal that would require parents to opt-in to the public education system.  In Osmond's modified plan, those parents who avail themselves of public education's services would also be required to enter into a "Public Education Parent Participation Contract," that among other things would require them to attend all parent-teacher conferences, ensure all homework is completed, and cover the costs of any remediation received by their child.

Underlying arguments like those made by Osmond and Ryan seems to be the belief that every parent of every child is equally capable of providing the very same support.  Ryan believes every parent can and should make his child's lunch in the mornings.  Similarly, Osmond seems to believe that parents come in a two discreet types:  (a) those skilled and competent enough to educate their own children or (b) financially secure enough to cover the costs of their children's "remediation" (not sure what that means, but apparently Osmond has a nice tight definition for it that will avoid all controversy ).

Osmond, Ryan, and others making these kinds of arguments seem to have forgotten that parents come in a wide variety of "flavors."  While the brown bag lunch crusaders and laissez faire education advocates would like to believe that every parent has an equal (and, it seems, inexhaustible) supply of educational acumen, time, and money, the reality is that today's parents look a lot different than those that raised Osmond and Ryan.  There are parents who, despite their desire to be as helpful to their children as possible, don't have the intellectual, social, and financial capital as do others in their communities.

Osmond's proposal is presented as a way of "liberating" parents from the mandates of an oppressive government, however, this liberation only extends to a certain class of parent.  Osmond seems to have forgotten the parent who works 2 - 3 jobs, speaks limited English, or who can't afford to pay for remediation.  Ultimately, for a growing segment of the population, these plans masquerade as virtuous ways of supporting and liberating families, when in reality they are veiled forms of oppression for those without the privileges enjoyed by the naive lawmakers making the proposals.  Utah Senator Luz Robles, in responding to Osmond's original plan for ending mandatory education, said it best:

Not everyone might have a highly educated, Ph.D. mom or dad, what might happen to that child [who does not]?"

If Osmond, Ryan, and others are really interested in supporting parents, they can make good by considering how educational policy and legislation might be crafted to support all parents.  In a recent post on his excellent blog, my good friend +Greg Williams argues that any comprehensive attempt to improve educational systems has to acknowledge the critical role that parents play in their child's education.  He concludes his post with this provocative question:  "Why aren't we having more discussion about helping parents be great parents (emphasis is mine)?"

It's a tremendously important question and one I would posit to those who only seem interested in penalizing those parents who, despite their best efforts, can't support their children by offering home school, packing a brown-sack lunch, or doing the things Ryan and Osmond would have us believe are the hallmarks of a "good" parent.

Friday, March 7, 2014

The importance of the CSO (Chief Storytelling Officer)

I spent the last two days with a group of public school teachers, counselors, and administrators.  For the last
six months, I've been privileged to meet with them about once a month to be part of discussions surrounding important issues in education.  This week's retreat was focused on the notion of stewardship in schools and the need for educators to hold a commitment and investment in the entire school community, as opposed to what happens in their classroom.  For me, the highlight of the two days was hearing two key stories that are at the heart of the work we were doing together.  

The first story came from Steve Baugh, who is a former school superintendent in Utah and now the Executive Director of the BYU-Public School Partnership and Center for the Improvement of Teacher Education and Schooling (CITES).  Paul's purpose was to familiarize us all with the story of CITES, and more specifically, the Associates Program that we are all participating in.  He described what led to the formation of the partnership, the evolution of its core commitments, and the purposes behind the Associates Program.  Hearing this story from Steve, who has been involved with the partnership in one form or another for the last two decades, was infinitely more impactful than reading about it in a brochure or on a website (which I have done multiple times).  When he finished his story, I felt a renewed sense of purpose, pride at having been asked to participate, and a commitment to fully engaging in the process.

The second story was told by Paul Sweat, the former principal of Wasatch High School.  Paul was the principal at Wasatch during two key events:  the move from the "old high school" to the "new building" and the 100 year anniversary of the opening of the first high school in 1908.  From what I can tell, Paul's most significant contribution to the school and the surrounding community was taking what was a highly emotionally-charged, politicized, and potentially controversial transition into a new building and using that process as a means of uniting both the school community and the surrounding community of Heber Valley.  His story described the process of moving into the new school, incorporating elements of the "old school" and its values into the new building, and skillfully generating support from nearly everyone involved, including current students, parents, alumni, and community members.  I've never seen a school or administrator be so intentional or strategic about anything--it was inspiring and instructive.

Steve and Paul are what I call Chief Storytelling Officers or CSOs.  In addition to the duties outlined in their job descriptions as administrators in their organizations, they play an incredibly (yet underappreciated and often unrecognized) role in ensuring that the wisdom, legacy, and values of their organizations are understood and appreciated by others.  Clearly, to be a CSO requires skill in story-telling (which I'll get to), but it's also a lot more:

1.  Deep history and vast experience.  Neither Steve nor Paul have been around from the beginning, but they've been around long enough that they have a rich institutional memory.  Steve has been involved as a teacher, administrator, or faculty member in the partnership for 44 years.  During that time he's been a close observer of the development and evolution of the partnership, positioning him to tell its story well.  In Paul's case, he has become a student of the history of his district, both by doing traditional research and spending hours and hours in conversation with others who have been around a lot longer than he has.  As a result, he knows the story of Wasatch High School and it means something to him (he had to hold back tears a number of times yesterday as he shared vignettes of the sacrifice and commitment that others have made over the years as teachers, coaches, benefactors, etc.).  A CSO knows the meta-story of his or her place because he or she has lived it, researched it, and listened the hundreds of micro-stories from others across all levels of the organization.

2.  Credibility and Respect.  Because of their experience, Steve and Paul have street cred, which means that when they tell their story, others listen.  Steve has a natural advantage because he's been around a long time and that, in and of itself, brings respect and credibility.  In Paul's case, his credibility has come through the hard work he's done to learn the story and his demonstrated abilities in bringing people together for a shared purpose.  CSOs can't just be good story-tellers, they have to have been successful in their other roles, be it as the CFO, superintendent, director of HR, or whatever it is they're job description says they're supposed to be doing.  That success buys them the story-telling capital they need for people to listen to what they have to say.

3.  Story-telling Chops.  Steve and Paul both told their stories in very different ways, but in both cases it was effective.  Steve spoke from hand-written notes and had no visual supports, which some would say is a big no-no.  But, his sincerity and humility are disarming.  I felt like I was listening to the grandfather of CITES tell me a story that I'd heard before, but that I couldn't stop listening to.  Paul used visual images really well, from pictures of the first high school and how the new building incorporated some of its architectural elements, to the new school seal,, to the mural that was created by an alum (who also happens to be a respected artist) to visually represent the story of the first 100 years of WHS.  The images he shared, sprinkled with vignettes about key events and characters from the school's history, left me wanting to quit my job at BYU and go to work at the High School, and I've never even stepped foot in it.  

Although I'm not an employee of Wasatch County School District or of the McKay School of Education, hearing these stories left me feeling a sense of stewardship for what happens in Wasatch County Schools.  I care about the students there and want to be a part of the learning that goes on in their classrooms.  That means Steve and Paul both played their role as CSOs very well.  The stories they told helped me understand and feel connected to the legacy, culture, and purposes of their organizations.

Steve retires this year and Paul has moved on to a position at the district level.  There is an inherent risk that their stories will be forgotten.  If that happens, both the McKay School and the District will have lost a tremendous asset.  In fact, yesterday after Paul's presentation I asked him whether students and teachers at the high school knew much of what he had shared with us.  He mentioned that there is an orientation for new students in which some of the stories are shared, but also acknowledged that since he has left the HS, a lot of the stories have been forgotten.

Individuals have short memories.  Organizations, particularly those with high degree of turnover, have even shorter memories.  One of the dangers, any organization needs to be aware of and avoid, is letting CSOs go unnoticed, or worse, letting them move on without imparting their stories to new CSOs.   

So, whether you're a family, a business, a school, or a church congregation, you need to be asking yourself a set of questions relating to your stories:

  • What are the key stories that need to be told?
  • Who are the CSOs who can tell them?
  • Who will be the new CSOs?
  • How do we prepare them?

What concerns me is that neither the McKay School or the District seem to recognize Steve and Paul's roles as CSOs.