Sports and Ethical Leadership: Views from the Field

By Jessica McManus Warnell

Like most universities with Division I athletics, Notre Dame doesn’t need to look far to find alumni making their mark in competition after graduation. But sports as an industry is big business - with big challenges, and ever-expanding opportunities for ethical leadership. We sat down with alumni working in the industry along with faculty member and NDDCEL Fellow Professor Brian Levey, who teaches in the space, for their insights into the business of sports - and the role of ethics.

Football in Grass

 

Ayden Syal (ND ‘17) is the co-founder and CEO of MOGL, a leading marketplace connecting collegiate athletes and businesses for marketing opportunities that are compliant with name, image, and likeness (NIL) regulations. With his former classmate Brandon Wimbush, who started 16 games at quarterback for the Fighting Irish, Ayden founded the company that serves as the NIL technology provider for NBC Sports along with many athletic departments and collectives across all three NCAA divisions.

Ayden Syal
MOGL Co-Founders and Alumni Ayden Syal and Brandon Wimbush

We also spoke with Trebor Goodall, ND ‘19, an account manager for league partnerships at Overtime, a sports media company geared toward the next generation of sports fans and athletes. Ayden and Trebor share their experiences connecting athletes to opportunities for impact on and off the field.

 

 

 

What is "NIL"?

Why is the mission of empowering collegiate athletes meaningful to you? Why does NIL go beyond simply monetizing student-athletes' “personal brands”?

What connections do you see between sports and business - what are the shared pillars of high-level success?

 

Brian Levey has taught ethics in sports at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Professor Levey describes his motivation for developing his courses:

Brian Levey

"For many of us, because sports plays such a central role in our lives, it’s a powerful learning tool. By any measure, sports is big business, making it worthy of study. And like business, it contributes to the general welfare – everything from employment to investment opportunities to tax revenues to civic pride. But unlike business, most students actually have experience with sports and so it serves as a useful surrogate to illustrate almost any business ethics issue, let alone life lesson. Finally, because they attend a university with major college sports, our students are surrounded by sports ethics issues, with some students – especially student-athletes – personally confronting them on a regular basis."

 

 

Trebor Goodall reminds us that sport has always been connected to social impact. He notes,

Trebor

What I love most about sports is that they are a driver of community. People from various walks of life are united globally by their investment and love for teams or athletes. In a world rife with division, our participation in sports, rallying and gathering around players or teams, unites us.

 

There is no doubt that sport is a driver of culture. The ways key stakeholders respond to social issues that athletes or fanbases hold dear is a testament to the industry’s influence. For example, athletes have historically used their platforms to create awareness about societal issues like child labor violations and religious freedom abroad, while advocating for the safety and livelihood of marginalized groups. Because athletes have rallied for these causes, their brand partners, the organizations they play for, and businesses they're invested in are prompted to make public stances, financial commitments, and create initiatives for the betterment of society.

When asked to summarize the most compelling ethical issues in the sports industry, Professor Levey notes simply, “Money and who gets it, followed by physical and mental wellbeing.” The list of cases he explores in his courses is daunting - but it is clear that opportunities for ethical leaders to make positive impacts abound. Professor Levey describes escalating franchise values as just one example of ethics in sports, asking us to consider the seemingly never-ending upward trajectory in compensation for players, coaches, agents, and front office and league personnel; fees paid by broadcasters, advertisers and sponsors; wagers by bettors in states with legalized gambling; prices for tickets, parking, and concessions; sales of video games, apparel, memorabilia and equipment; and costs of stadium construction.

And these high financial stakes matter. Professor Ann Tenbrunsel, a Mendoza faculty member and NDDCEL Faculty Fellow who specializes in the psychology of ethical decision making, has shown that high-profile sports share many vulnerabilities with business when it comes to unethical behavior. Professor Tenbrunsel’s research uncovers that “unethical behavior is context-dependent…. [and] how decisions are framed has a big impact on how we act. As such, some domains—such as the winner-takes-all arena of professional sports—are more fertile grounds than others for cheating.”

So why is ethical leadership important? Professor Levey notes, “The questions for a leader are the same no matter what industry - what kind of person do you want to be, what kind of team or organization do you want to run, and what does success look like?”

What’s next on the horizon for your industry? What would you like people to know about the NIL landscape? 


We asked Ayden and Trebor to reflect on early career experiences that have been most meaningful to them. Both noted the Mendoza College of Business ethos of “Growing the Good in Business” is foundational to their career paths.

What successes have been most inspiring to you?

Trebor describes equity concerns that point to the challenges and opportunities for the industry to better embrace diversity and inclusion, including in the area of women’s sports. He notes, My love for women's sports started back in high school with the success of our Tindley [Indianapolis] girls’ basketball program, but that support grew during my time as a marketing intern for Notre Dame’s Women’s Basketball. I grew to understand the importance and value of championing women as they excel at their craft, create brands for themselves and serve their communities. Since then, I’ve been an advocate for pushing women’s sports forward by driving investment for brand partnerships I’ve activated and in more representative hiring through my role on Overtime’s DEI board. I work with brands and to deploy their seven-figure investments across initiatives that have supported multicultural stories and engaged multicultural audiences with intentionality. A recent discussion has been about the record-breaking ratings of this year's NCAA WBB Championship game and how these players are dominating the NIL marketplace as influential and brand-friendly ambassadors. If there's one lesson to have learned, it's that the time is now for CMOs, partners at VC firms and ADs nationwide to increase investments in women's sports like never before. These investments not only produce positive results from a business perspective, but they are the right thing to do.

Examples of courageous ethical leadership in sports can motivate students and professionals alike - these stories are effective ways to engage and inspire. Professor Levey describes a sampling of the exemplars he discusses with his students.

We discuss a number in class, including Muhammad Ali, who refused to step forward for the draft during the Vietnam War, and Eric Liddell, who refused to run on the Sabbath during the 1924 Paris Olympics, both because of their religious convictions. And then there’s Jackie Robinson. Each year as we discuss social progress, I’m struck anew by all that he must have endured, the accounts of his dignity and grace, and his resulting cultural significance. At least one commentator has suggested that by breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier Robinson garnered more attention than any other figure in the nation’s civil rights struggles. Sports is so often where we advance as a society, and Jackie Robinson is a prime mover.

From pay equity to mental wellness, athletes and coaches offer lessons and inspiration that can motivate change in businesses of all types.

Mcgraw
(AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

 

 

 

 

 

Key takeaways

  • The landscape in collegiate and professional athletics is changing - conversations about ethical issues from well-being and equity to responsibility and accountability are front and center, and many of our athletes and coaches are leading the way.

  • Leaders in organizations across industries can leverage the storytelling power and camaraderie that sports embody - stories and examples of ethical leadership on and off the field can inspire moral action in the workplace and in the classroom.

  • Opportunities for athletes, coaches, administrators, and fans to connect are more abundant than ever - in examples from around the world, the scope and impact of sports continues to grow, and to show the importance of inclusive and equitable experiences for all stakeholders.

For further reading


Bonus Content:  Lessons for Students and Early-Career Professionals

Ayden and Trebor offer their insights for readers who are considering careers in the industry - and all who want to be intentional about integrating ethics into their careers.

After graduating, what resources were most helpful to you in founding your company?

What advice do you have for college students and young professionals?

 

Trebor notes,

I think experience is the biggest teacher and everyone's journey is different - for that reason I'm not keen on advice. That point aside, I'd implore seniors, graduates, and young professionals to navigate their careers with a nugget that's served me well personally: make room for curiosity to be in the driver seat. As an undergraduate, I was intentional about tailoring marketing class projects around the business models and opportunities within sports and found a role as a marketing intern for the Women's Basketball program. I engaged in research outside of the classroom including international experiences. My curiosity about trends in these areas expanded my idea of what making an impact in the sports industry and on athletes’ lives could be. Who knows what the future holds - but the journey of curiosity puts all of us in a better position to act with vision moving forward.

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