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AFM Magazine

Education: A New Pillar for Modern Sports

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By J. Thompson

American Public University offers online degrees in sports management and sports and health sciences.

The legend of Knute Rockne was forged on the gridiron. Many know his contributions as a football tactician – introducing the Notre Dame Shift and perfecting the passing attack. But it’s his off-the-field contributions that add to his legacy, which the College Football Hall of Fame describes as “American football’s most-renowned coach.” A chemistry graduate turned coach, Rockne used his sharp mind for strategy, his gift of speech to motivate players, and his managerial leadership to take a football team and promote it into one of the most financially successful programs of its time – pro or collegiate. 

    Flash forward to 2011. Rockne’s innovations serve as an early foundation for sports management nearly a century later. The discipline has evolved to reach every aspect of the global, multibillion dollar sports industry. Today, coaches, athletes and sports-related professionals aren’t just working at their dream careers. They’re turning to education to help give them opportunity to be the best at what they do. 

    “Whether it’s working with athletes as far as rehabilitation or injury prevention, coaching, leadership, or whether it’s on the business side, getting fans into the stadium and giving them the best experience – there’s a demand for all of those different career paths,” says Brian Freeland, Program Director of Sports and Health Sciences and Sports Management at American Public University (APU). The popularity and competitiveness of the industry requires that people have more than just experience and enthusiasm. Making the cut in the modern era takes good career planning and central to that plan is a quality undergraduate or graduate degree. 

    Extra free time is a luxury that most coaches or industry professionals don’t have. Add financial limitations to the equation and the thought of going back to college is more of a dream than practical reality for some. That was before the emergence of online learning. Known for its flexibility, affordability and quality, online education gives experienced professionals and those interested in joining the field the ability to maintain their hectic schedules while earning sports management degrees.  

    “A college degree in sports management provides coaches the opportunity to further advance their knowledge in teaching skill development, motivating athletes, and providing quality leadership,” says Freeland. “It helps coaches meet required criteria for coaching promotions or transition to athletic administration that often require higher learning.” This trend to online education is also gaining momentum among professional athletes who are planning their next iteration in sports. Call it, Career 2.0. 

    Former NFL Dallas Cowboy and current CFL Toronto Argonauts’ defensive standout Willie Pile is an active member of APU’s community of learners. He’s on track to graduate with his master’s in sports management this summer. Pile first earned his undergraduate degree in business administration from Virginia Tech, while also a three-year starter at free safety for the nationally-ranked Hokies. His thirst for learning didn’t stop after the NFL drafted him in 2003. During his playing tenure in the NFL and NFL Europe, Pile followed his affinity for business by observing the front office to see if his “vision matched the reality.” His journeys exposed him to the exciting, behind-the-scenes world of managing football programs. Based on his early research, Pile knew a master’s in sports management would be his next step. 

    Pile recommends that prospective students research all education options like he did. First, he developed a list of criteria (time, cost and quality). He then closely examined the importance of accreditation. “I spent two days researching what regional and national accreditation is and what it means to transfer credits. I wanted a university where teachers and the program are reviewed and audited, and I wanted a degree that meant something in the real world.” Pile compared brick and mortar institutions with online universities. The decision to join APU came from a desire to earn his degree from a regionally accredited university. It also balanced time for his rigorous football schedule, his many community outreach programs, and most importantly to him, finding quality family time as both husband and father.  

    By enrolling at APU, Pile became part of an extensive community of lifelong learners and instructors, many who work as sports professionals and share the same passion for the industry. “Classmates bring their experience to the classroom and we have a good relationship with our professors because they’re actively involved in the discussion,” he says. “It’s fun and it broadens your thought process.” He is also impressed by the university’s commitment to providing relevant curriculum that students seek. “We learn research methods and actively participate in classroom discussions to form our own opinions about topics like Title IX or challenging amateur status with pay for student-athletes,” he continues. “I built a solid 16-point business model for major college revenue programs based on core sports and by region.”   

    According to Pile, online learning can help some students sharpen their ability to effectively communicate, post discussions, and grow their own professional network through the emergence of social media. “Students get immersed in the online atmosphere,” he states. “The confidence I gained from learning how to communicate effectively and deal with constructive criticism through this online experience only strengthened my ability to interact with the various constituents I come across as a professional athlete, including coaches, fans and media.”

    Pile looks forward to obtaining his master’s in sports management, so that he is prepared when he decides to transition to his own Career 2.0. “I’m interested in being a collegiate A.D. or a director of football operations down the line. You need to know how to schedule, follow laws, stay compliant with NCAA rules, setup logistical planning like travel, negotiate meal and hotel prices, manage the budget, run player development, hire and fire. HR is a big part of it.” Pile selected sports management because the curriculum covers a wide range of duties facing collegiate athletic directors today. At the same time, Pile feels that the broad scope of the degree provides him flexibility to be effective if he chooses to pursue an executive role in the NFL. “If your goal is to get an education – to move forward in whatever you’re trying to accomplish – it doesn’t get any better than the blend of cost, quality, and convenience that APU provides.”  

    It’s been 87 years since Knute Rockne and Notre Dame claimed its first National Championship ending with an undefeated season at the Rose Bowl. Since then, the coaching profession and sports management discipline have come a long way, thanks in part to the continual pursuit of knowledge. Perhaps the sports industry took a page from Rockne’s philosophy when he opined, “Football is a game played with arms, legs and shoulders, but mostly from the neck up.”


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