Jan Box-Steffensmeier was Ohio State’s dean of social and behavioral sciences when she had an idea: Since the university was No. 1 in athletics, shouldn’t it also be No. 1 in academics and research around athletics?
To achieve that goal, she joined with two legendary sports-focused economics professors in Trevon Logan and Lucia Dunn, and together they created the Ohio State Sports and Society Initiative.
Four years later, SSI has grown into a cross-discipline, collaborative endeavor that spans the university community and beyond, with the goal of deepening understanding of society through its intersection with sports.
To accomplish this goal, it works to build knowledge and opportunities for students, gather and creating data to advance impactful research across an array of disciplines, and engage the community through meaningful conversations.
Led by director Nicole Kraft of the School of Communication, SSI includes faculty from sociology, economics, sports industry, sports medicine and social work, as well partners from university athletics, the Ohio High School Athletics Association and the Columbus Sports Commission. Its board includes leaders from across the Ohio State alumni family, including attorney Steve Chappelear of Varsity O; attorney Kristin Watt, voice of the Lady Buckeyes; Vince Doria of ESPN; Rick Spielman, general manager of the Minnesota Vikings; Greg Strizek, NASCAR’s principal research analyst; and Matthew Mitten, professor of law and the executive director of the National Sports Law Institute at Marquette University.
“Athletics touched and shaped the life of so many people, no matter what your level of competition,” Kraft said. “Our goal is to build a much stronger understanding of the connection sports has in our lives and how it shapes us far beyond any game or season.”
Through research, programming and academic engagement, SSI works to understand the impact of sports at the collegiate and youth levels, as well as life after sports; the study of sports and research including the role of data, analysis of sport and student leadership in data; and better understanding current events and burgeoning topics, including e-sports, athlete equality, mental health, and news, analysis, and interpretation.
It has funded the National Sports and Society Survey, a study of 4,000 U.S. adults led by Chris Knoester of sociology that collects information on sports-related attitudes experiences, and collaborates with student clubs to help them engage academically and societally.
“SSI is an extraordinary opportunity for the athletic expertise at and around Ohio State to come together on topics that transcend any field or court of play,” Kraft said. “Our goal is to help society to better understand the issues and concepts that shape athletes—from rec leagues to the college athletic experiences and beyond.”
SSI has five key pillars:
- Outreach and Engagement: To advance the university’s national reputation through inclusive dialogue, meaningful conversations.
- Teaching and Learning: Creating learning and career opportunities for students by tapping into passion for sport.
- Research and Creative Expression: To increase research prominence and funding of sports related topics.
- Leadership and Advocacy: Leading the national conversation around sports topics
- Alumni Relations and Advancement: To engage the university community to connect athletics to purpose.
Among its most visible efforts have been its semi-annual programming, which brings experts together to discuss issues paramount to the intersection of sports and society, including paying college athletes, equality for all athletes, compliance and what happens when sports end.
Its spring event, set for April 16, 2020, in the Ohio Union, is called “MindGames,” a day-long event looking at mental health and athletics, featuring renowned experts and Kate Fagan, author of the book “What Made Maddy Run.”
SSI has been fortunate to engage with many former Ohio State student-athletes, including Greg Oden, Joshua Perry, Marscilla Packer and more. It hopes that mission resonates with even more former alums seeking to support a better understanding of how sport and society are constantly and forever intertwined.