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Sport & Society Conference To Bring Together Academics, Professionals


How does Tiger Woods' involvement in a scandal lead to a television ratings spike for The Masters? Why does the lack of an NCAA Division I playoff stir up such emotion in college football fans? When did NFL fans' appetite for year-round information become so insatiable?

That's just a sampling of the topics that may be discussed, among countless others, at a conference coming up May 26-28 entitled "A Mirror of Our Culture: Sport and Society in America." Hosted jointly by St. Norbert College and the Green Bay Packers, a first-of-its-kind partnership between an institution of higher learning and a professional sports franchise, the event will take an extensive look at the way sports and society interact.

"The basic concept of the conference is to bring together sports academics and sports professionals in one place and to talk seriously about all the issues that surround organized sports," said Dr. Michael Marsden, Dean and Academic Vice President at St. Norbert, a private, Division III liberal arts institution located in De Pere, Wis., just a few miles south of Green Bay.

"I've always been an absolute believer in the importance of studying sports. Sports are just so much a part of the fabric of our lives that we ought to take it seriously, we ought to step back and reflect on it."

The conference will do that through a series of presentations, panel discussions and keynote speakers that highlight the three days, as academics and business professionals from around the country convene. The event, with portions scheduled for the St. Norbert campus and the Lambeau Field Atrium, will also feature an exhibit area for publishers, a gallery exhibition and a film festival.

Although the conference is mostly an academic gathering, organizers also are inviting sports fans to attend and gain a deeper understanding of many of the issues surrounding sports and their impact on society.

Packers President and CEO Mark Murphy, a former athletic director at both Colgate and Northwestern universities, felt the partnership with St. Norbert for the event was a natural one, considering the team's long-standing relationship with the school as the host of its annual training camp. The fact that the Packers are community-owned, and therefore have always been a prominent piece of that community fabric, also made it imperative for the organization to be involved.

"Having worked on a college campus for as long as I did, there's a real split among academics in terms of the value and importance of athletics," Murphy said. "On the one hand you've got people that study sport and understand the impact it has on society and the focus on that, but a lot of people on college campuses look at athletics as fun and games, and (they ask) why are we taking this seriously? Those are really important issues."

Among several papers and presentations, four major speakers will give key addresses. They are:

--Paul Tagliabue, former NFL commissioner, who will speak on "Sport in American Society" at 9:15 a.m. on Wednesday, May 26, at the Walter Theatre in the Abbot Pennings Hall of Fine Arts at St. Norbert.

--Carl Vogel, a 1979 St. Norbert grad and partner in SCP Worldwide which owns the NHL's St. Louis Blues, who will address "The Future of American Sports" at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, May 27, in the Legends Club Room at Lambeau Field.

--Dr. Robert Kustra, President of Boise State University, who will present "Modern College Athletics: A View from the Top" at 1:30 p.m on Wednesday, May 26, at SNC's Walter Theatre.

--Kevin B. Blackistone of ESPN's "Around the Horn" and the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, who will speak on "Race and Sports in America" at 8:30 a.m. on Friday, May 28, at SNC's Walter Theatre.

"We want to bring it all together, to try to marry the academic world and the sports professional world," Marsden said. "It's a situation where both can learn from each other and that doesn't always happen. Academics don't always have a chance to sit down with sports professionals and talk about issues that are pretty important, and sports professionals don't often have the chance to sit down and talk with academics about issues that are important.

"From economics of sports to sociology to everything from the study of fans, religion in sports, literature, ... we're open to all possibilities."

Murphy added that while there may be disagreement as to whether sports should be as valued as they are in today's society, there's little debate about the impact they have. One of the never-ending debates he's seen on college campuses is how important it is to win versus simply the value of the athletic experience for the participants.

There's value in both, Murphy feels, and not just because winning usually boosts a school's status and finances.

"To me, Division III athletics is the purest you get at the collegiate level, ... but even though it's the Division III level, there's nothing wrong with trying to win," Murphy said. "That's one of the lessons (athletes) really learn is to strive for excellence and compete as hard as you can and want to win.

"To me, that's really what life's about. Life is competitive. Business is competitive. Whatever field you go into you're going to compete, and the lessons you learn from that athletic experience will directly translate into whatever you want to do when your playing career is over."

Several St. Norbert students also will be participating in the event, with business faculty member Paul Bursik conducting an intensive three-week "sports and society" course in May as students meet before, during and after the conference.

Long-term, Marsden hopes the conference will eventually become an annual event, but his short-range goal is for attendees of all backgrounds to leave the conference with a broader perspective on sports as a part of American culture.

"My hope is that what St. Norbert will be known for in the future because of this is a place where we think about sports, where we care about the impact sports have on society, and that we take a hard look at that, positive and negative," Marsden said.

More information on the conference, as well as registration information, can be found by clicking here.

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