Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., recently announced a $50 million gift—one of the largest in the university’s history. It was given for athletics.
The donation by real-estate developer Peter Cooper and his wife, Susan, will upgrade Georgetown’s main outdoor sports complex, primarily used for football, lacrosse, and field hockey. But the more interesting chunk of the gift will be used to ramp up a leadership program aimed at helping athletes excel off the field as well as on it. “We believe that athletics and academics combine to provide an ideal crucible to create future leaders,” states Cooper.
Like a lot of philanthropy, the couple’s donation has a very personal root—all five of their children studied at Georgetown, and serious participation in sports was a big part of what they found satisfying and important during their college years. At Georgetown and many other universities, athletic participation goes way beyond the few games that get media publicity. There are 750 athletes—about 10 percent of the undergraduate student body—participating in 29 Division I sports at Georgetown. Three of the Coopers’ sons played football, and their daughter was a swimmer.
Currently, every Georgetown athlete is required to attend a series of leadership classes. “We believe that every student athlete needs to be trained as a leader,” says assistant athletic director Mike Lorenzen. “As persons of influence from day one on campus, we put the mantle of responsibility on their shoulders.” Juniors and seniors will have the option of participating in an advanced program, which combines mentoring, discussion, field experience, and individual coaching.
A highlight for Joshua Yaro, Georgetown soccer captain and this year’s No. 2 pro draft pick, was taking tests to identify his strengths and weaknesses as a leader, then discussing the results and implications with experts. He believes it will not only make him more successful as he starts his professional playing career with the Philadelphia Union, but more effective in life generally.
With the Coopers’ funds, Lorenzen will be able to expand today’s leadership program and offer expanded courses, conduct research on the subject, and provide new services. At the same time, he says, it’s important not to “blur the line” between athletics and academics. This leadership training needs to meet the same “high hurdle of intellectual rigor and seriousness to fit within Georgetown’s academic framework,” and not become just “an athletics thing.”
A former head gymnastics coach who holds a master’s in international relations from Yale and an education doctorate from University of the Pacific, Lorenzen will teach many classes himself. He realized there was an opportunity for “a much more rigorous approach to leadership development using the athletics laboratory in college.” And that Georgetown, with its broad Jesuit mission, is a good fit.
In addition to being required for athletes, non-athletes will be able to take the leadership courses for academic credit. Lorenzen guesses that 51 percent of seats will be reserved for non-athletes to prevent the field from becoming a ghetto for jocks. Today, he notes, there isn’t any place on campus where, say, a student-body president or chair of a campus group can learn in a structured way how to lead and influence.
Georgetown’s approach is a contrast to typical “life-skills programs” that some universities offer their athletes, Lorenzen says, and will take a more academic, multidisciplinary, and thorough approach. Other universities that have created programs more like Georgetown’s include Stanford and the University of Texas at Austin.
Georgetown’s training will be broad. A “Captains’ Council” recently brought the leaders of all campus varsity teams to the Gettysburg battlefield for a two-day immersive retreat. All 700-plus campus athletes gathered together for perhaps the first time for training and discussion. This summer, ten athletes will head to Peru, for the first in what will be a series of trips, to learn about how Jesuits lead in Latin America in pursuit of healthy social reforms.
Too often, suggests Lorenzen, the institutional advice offered to college athletes is “don’t be a knucklehead.” The new efforts funded by the Cooper family will aim for something more ambitious. The message in a nutshell will be, “We’re going to educate you to become an effective advocate for improving society.”
This is one of five sidebars to John Feinstein’s feature article “The Passion and Pitfalls of Giving to College Sports”