THE BLOG
07/30/2010 12:25 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Sporting a Conscience

Tom Matlack sits down with the Executive Director of Northeastern University's Sports in Society program, Dan Lebowitz, to talk sports, social justice, and manhood.

You wouldn't necessarily expect a former boxer from the projects, who overcame a leg with limited mobility, to be the country's foremost expert on sports and manhood -- but he is. Meet Dan Lebowitz, who runs Northeastern University's Sport in Society Program. His organization provides curriculum and trainings to NFL, NBA and NCAA teams particularly around the issues of manhood and men's violence against women and his organization has been invited to the White House three times to participate in roundtables related to Michelle Obama's "Let's Get Moving" platform. Dan is very close to John Carlos and Tommie Smith and has honored Muhammed Ali and Bill Russell at his annual gala.

I sat down with Dan to discuss sports, social justice, and being a complete man.

TOM: Let's talk about what your program does.

DAN: Sport in Society uses the power of sport to mobilize social justice and move the continuum forward on social progress. And by that, we attend to the issues of social justice, racial justice, gender equity, disability rights, the healthy development of boys, and the healthy development of young girls. We work on how healthy development and physical activity leads to cognitive development, and how that cognitive development leads to conflict resolution, and how those conflict resolution skills lead to youth violence eradication. We have a variety of longstanding and world-renowned curricula, all based around this overall objective of social justice, racial justice, and healthy development. Basically, the program is about how to create equity in a landscape that's filled with inequity.

TOM: So you work with top-level athletes all the way down to kids?

DAN: Our strategic plan has two concurrent planes. The first plane is that we try to mobilize the global sports industry to be involved in these types of initiatives. We partner with various entities around the world through sport. On a national scale, we run a lot of curricular programs and we're trying to mobilize what I would call a Sport Corps -- a program that's a sort of Peace Corps initiative for athletes being trained in the idea of using sport as a universal language to move social progress forward in an equitable fashion.

TOM: So you work with the NFL, the NBA, and the NCAA?

DAN: Yeah, and then on a local scale, we run a program that's called the Health Connection. We've partnered with a variety of health centers, and we try to create a life cycle of activity and educational involvement for kids throughout the city.

TOM: How many kids are you reaching?

DAN: About 8,500.

TOM: So what percentage of kids in Boston participate in sports?

DAN: Well, there's a great disparity between the kids in the urban setting and in the suburban setting. About twenty to twenty-two percent of kids in the city participate, and seventy-eight percent of kids in the suburbs participate. That disparity does not have to do so much with athletic ability; it has to do with socioeconomics.

TOM: So let's talk about boys in particular. From your vantage point, what do you think is going on with boys, particularly in lower economic situations? And what role can sports play in that situation?

DAN: I think one of the biggest problems with boys is the search for identity. In the last number of years, particularly in the city, being smart is considered uncool. If a kid starts from that vantage point, where are his options? These curricula help create an identity of strength for each individual boy, so that he feels good about himself, in his own skin, and starts to realize that intelligence is a positive thing, that working hard is a positive thing. If you accept that being smart and working hard are uncool, then really your lifespan -- even if you stay out of harm's way -- in terms of your upside opportunity, ends around 20 or 25 because you don't have any of the basis that would propel you toward a college education or beyond.

It's important for boys to understand that hard work and being nurturing, being kind, being considerate, and being respectful of women doesn't preclude you from being tough as hell. A boy can still have all the things that we've associated sort of viscerally with masculinity, and still embrace all of those other elements and really be a complete man.

TOM: Does the program reinforce the idea that sports are a way out?

DAN: The programs we run aren't about sport as a way out. We use sport not as an end in and of itself, but as a way to engage a conversation about things around and outside of sport, and it's an incredibly effective tool. We're trying to create a leadership platform and have kids see themselves as young leaders -- ambassadors to kind of send the message forward. They become junior coaches to their peers and hopefully it creates a cultural change.

I'm not naive to think that it's going to create a mass cultural change, but if we touch eight thousand kids in this city, and we change the lives of five hundred or a thousand of them over a long period of time, that branches out, as they have children and they come into contact with other people. You can't grow a tree without planting a seed.

TOM: Tell me a little bit about your personal background, in terms of why you're called to do this work.

DAN: I've tasted all of the things that these kids have tasted in terms of socioeconomics, in terms of being around and near violence, in terms of seeing racial inequity firsthand.

TOM: You've built a multicultural family of six kids, three of whom are your biological children. Do you kind of foster their ethnicity in any particular way?

DAN: No. I think we just talk about humanitarian things most of all. I think that the greatest thing in our house is engaging kids in conversation -- that's the trick to fatherhood; engaging your kids into conversation, and then accepting when they don't want to talk to you. Even when that's difficult as a father, because you sometimes... you personalize it, you're like, Oh, he hates me. (Laughter.) It's a killing moment at times, but you just have to realize at different stages of boys' lives, they're going to separate and they're going to come back.

TOM: You've seen what we are up to at The Good Men Project and read our book. What's your reaction?

DAN: I enjoyed reading your book because it's about men embracing self-reflection, in a way that's thoughtful. The book is a very passionate mosaic of how great men could be if they took a step back from the construct of what they formally assumed manhood to be, and embraced a new construct of what manhood could be. It's about positive self-reflection, moving forward from that in a thoughtful way. It's a manifesto for how men can be.

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