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AGS hosts panel on changing landscape of college athletics, sports’ impact on U.S. diplomacy

The Duke Program in American Grand Strategy hosted a panel about the changing landscape of college sports and the role sports play in the United States’ foreign diplomacy, as part of the Ambassador Dave and Kay Phillips Family International Lecture Series Thursday evening. 

Peter Feaver, AGS director and professor of political science and public policy, moderated the panel. Panelists included former Duke men’s basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski, National Basketball Association commissioner Adam Silver, Sarah Hirshland, CEO of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, and Martin Dempsey, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The panelists spent much time discussing recent developments in collegiate sports.

Krzyzewski spoke on recent conference alignment in NCAA Division 1 athletics, saying that it is “ridiculous” to have teams traveling from the West Coast to the East Coast, as will soon be the case when the Atlantic Coast Conference expands to include the University of California, Berkeley, Southern Methodist University and Stanford University. 

“We’re taking care of the best TV coverage checks and the money,” he said. “What the hell are we doing? … Right now, there's not a clear cut course about where we are going, and we need to set the course.” 

Hirshland worries that the U.S. “education-based sports system” has started to take the “student” away from the title “student athlete.” She also cautioned against painting all sports with the same brush, pointing to the different problems each athlete and conference faces. 

Silver pointed out that many other countries have a minister of sport who would fund collegiate athletic programs with taxpayer dollars funneling into “developing young athletes, not just in college, but before they get to college, and build the sport infrastructure for healthy living and all the other benefits that come from participation.” 

Meanwhile, Krzyzewski expressed his worry that there is “no leader for college sports” at the moment as each conference is “looking out for its own.” 

“If you wanted to have a meeting to discuss college sports, who would call the meeting? What’s good for sports, what’s good for ABC, FOX, ESPN, CBS, the college athletes?” Krzyzewski asked. “We’d better be careful on how we do college sports, because college sports is the basis of our Olympic sports.”

On an international scale, Dempsey called for a more structured, centralized approach to sports diplomacy and organizing international tournaments. 

Despite preparing to host several major tournaments in the coming decade, such as the 2026 World Cup and the 2028 Olympics and Paralympics, Dempsey noted that the U.S. still does not have a “centralized policy about anything from visas.” 

“All the countries that we might say we disagree with — they’re coming. They need visas. They need security. And that can’t be done, just waiting forever,” he said. 

Silver noted that politics and sports are intertwined. While he believes that politics should not “invade” competition, he’s also proud of how athletes are comfortable in speaking out about issues that are important to them. 

Dempsey stated that it’s vital for U.S. athletes on the international stage to represent not just themselves, but also their nation, adding that athletes can help people “rise above” societal issues. 

“Whether it's players today who are kneeling for the anthem, or the NBA during COVID, Black Lives Matter on our floor, distinguished coaches doing videos and talking about social justice matters, I think it is part and parcel of life,” Silver said. 

“I also think that doesn't necessarily mean that as a fan, you have to accept what they're saying. But I think that it's a healthy dialogue, engaging with them, understanding their perspective, particularly on the global stage,” Silver added. 

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