Notes From a 'Commie' Sports Reformer

For someone who truly loves sports, I take quite a bit of abuse for supposedly hating them.

Besides being called a "sports hater" and "pinko," I've also been labeled "wimpy boy" and a lot more derogatory things that question my -- let's say -- toughness. One guy described me as "a guy who hates what's great about sports and America." Ouch.

However, my personal favorite came from someone who thinks I'm a "pencil neck Ivory Tower geek who wouldn't know the difference between a football and a basketball."

Well, my neck is on the thin side, and I might not know the recommended PSI for footballs or basketballs, but the truth is I do have an appreciation for sports from a variety of perspectives. I'm the son of a coach, and I played two varsity sports in college. I'm also a former coach, scout, referee and sports marketer. I've written a sports column, been a sports talk show host, and have a doctorate degree in sports management.

Today, I am Sports Policy Director for League of Fans, a sports reform organization founded by Ralph Nader and based in Washington, D.C. In that role, I write position papers, columns, and a blog on what we think are the biggest and most important issues in sports today. I often call for significant change, and that can raise the ire of traditionalists, hence the incendiary labels I receive from some readers.

The truth is that I am indeed passionate about sports -- and all the positives associated with them -- despite what some of my "fans" might think. I've enjoyed a lot of tremendous sports experiences, in various capacities, throughout my life. My best friends have come through sports. My kids are big into sports. Sports are a big part of who I am, good or bad. There's nothing better, in my mind, than sport at its best.

That said, I'm also fed up with what sports have become in some areas, and what they're becoming in others: ego- and greed-driven activities characterized by a win-at-all-costs (WAAC) and profit-at-all-costs (PAAC) ethos -- from the pros to the youth sports level.

And that's the foundation of my criticism of some aspects of sports today.

But I view the positions I take as the output of a sports lover, not a sports hater.

Robert F. Kennedy once said, "The sharpest criticism often goes hand in hand with the deepest idealism and love of country."

If you replace "country " in that sentence with "sports," you'll have an idea where I'm coming from. My bet is that despite some of the negative comments I receive, a lot of the rest of you feel the same way.

As a sports reformer, sports activist, or advocate for sports at their best, whatever you want to call me (see above for more inflammatory options), there are multiple things that I think need to happen in order to improve the world of sports for all stakeholders, not just those with the power and money.

And so I fight for social and economic justice in sports, which means things like equal opportunity in sports regardless of gender, and allowing big-time college athletes to benefit financially from their fame and likenesses -- just like every other student on campus has the right to do.

I work to make the games safer for participants by addressing the concussion challenge head-on and looking for ways to slow the growing number of overuse injuries suffered by our youngest athletes.

I encourage sports spectators to also become sports participants. The United States is a sports-mad country, but only when it comes to fandom.

I want youth sports to be a lot more about the kids and a lot less about the adults.

I'd like to see more humanistic coaches and fewer militaristic coaches so that young athletes don't have to be subjected to the physical and mental abuse that too often drives them out of sports. (The same behavior that would get a classroom teacher fired and possibly thrown in jail is too often accepted by society when it comes to coaches on our playing fields. Why is that?)

I believe that if sport and physical activity is good for students (and it is, physically, mentally, and emotionally), then all students should have the opportunity to participate. That means daily physical education classes and intramural sports programs need to take budgetary priority over varsity athletic programs in our schools.

I don't think taxpayers in communities struggling to pay for teachers, police officers, libraries and road maintenance, etc., should be asked to build billion-dollar sports palaces for ultra-wealthy pro sports owners.

There's more, of course. But you get the idea.

Ultimately, my goal is to help enhance the positives and mitigate the negatives in sports world, in any way possible. To that end, I've written a sports manifesto of sorts, a book about current sports issues called How We Can Save Sports: A Game Plan. It came out last week.

It includes my recommendations for addressing what I consider to be the nine most important issues in sports today. But more than that, it's a call for citizenship-through-sports activism, and it includes many ideas and resources for anyone interested in reforming something in the world of sports -- whether that be modifying your local youth sports organization's concussion policy or changing the National Football League's nonprofit status. (Yes, you read that correctly.)

It must be understood and accepted that those that currently have the power and money in sports aren't looking to change the sports systems and models in place. The current situation works for them. But it also results in WAAC and PAAC agendas that negatively impact a lot of the rest of us who have an ethical stake in sports.

Therefore, sports reform requires a grassroots effort.

"Any revolution starts in the countryside, with the peasants rising up," says veteran sportswriter Robert Lipsyte. "The influence of the power holders in sports won't change unless the peasants rise up."

Yes, an effective democracy requires active citizenship. It can take place in many areas. For sports lovers, what better way to make a difference in the world than through sports?

Pick an issue and rise up.