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Center for Sports Leadership & Innovation

What do you get when you combine two of UT’s historic strengths — sports and leadership? The Center for Sports Leadership & Innovation.

“Sport has the power to change the world,” Nelson Mandela said. “It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers.”

Sport is a defining part of our culture. It provides structure to the lives of tens of millions of youth and their families. Practices, games, and tournaments dictate weekly schedules. Wins and losses, penalties and trophies — they provide a moral framework for personal development.

The world of sports also represents a multibillion-dollar entertainment industry that imparts values, for good and for ill, to the next generation while elevating its most successful participants to the status of heroes.

There are already many institutions focused on sports, but UT’s Center for Sports Leadership & Innovation (CSLi) is about something more specific: the people who play and coach. By enriching the character and lives of the athletes and coaches, the center aspires to have an outsized effect on the character of our larger society.

After making its debut in late 2014 with Daron K. Roberts, BA ’01, at its helm, CSLi hit the ground running by introducing programs aimed at the university’s student-athletes. Partnering with the men’s and women’s athletics departments, it developed a curriculum to give freshmen who play sports the tools they need to get the most out of their UT experience and serve as leaders after graduation, whatever their vocation.

Daron Roberts

Daron K. Roberts

A former president of UT’s Student Government, Roberts went on to graduate from Harvard Law School before trading the public policy career track for his passion: coaching football. He served stints with several NFL and college teams before landing back on the Forty Acres.

Roberts has a track record of improving management systems and developing leadership strategies in both the private and public sectors. National publications including Sports Illustrated and Bloomberg Businessweek have featured him and his work. As a lecturer at UT, his focus is on issues of governance and innovation in the sports arena. He teaches two upper-division honors courses: “Leadership Strategy in Sports” and “Disruptive Innovation in Sports.”

But his biggest impact might be from leading a course called “Game Plan for Winning at Life.” Its purpose is to give student-athletes a foundation in financial management and sound decision-making. Because so few players become professionals — the NCAA calls the likelihood of any college athlete going pro “very low” — it is important that they keep their options open.

CSLi cultivates interdisciplinary relationships across campus to interweave academics and athletics. Every one of the university’s approximately 100 varsity freshman athletes now takes “Game Plan,” for instance. Taught through the School of Undergraduate Studies, it is one of the school’s Signature Courses.

Malik Jefferson

Malik Jefferson

The class “opened my eyes to the world,” says Malik Jefferson, a linebacker for the Texas Longhorns who was named the Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year. “It gave me a template for succeeding at UT and in life.”

Not all of the center’s efforts target athletes directly. Because high school coaches are critical influencers, the center created the Continuing Leadership and Ethical Athletic Training (CLEAT) program to train and certify Texas coaches who want to instill leadership and character in their students. CSLi trains coaches to foster academic success, develop community service programs, prevent substance abuse, and manage their program’s brand.

The center also convenes thought leaders to talk about issues where athletics and leadership intersect, such as the timely topic of concussions. It has hosted former athletes who discussed their retirement from sports due to injuries, illuminating the risks and rewards of competing. The center also has presented panels featuring state legislators who played collegiate sports. The lawmakers discussed the influence of coaches on their lives and the enduring lessons of teamwork and perseverance.

“The work that Daron and his staff are doing with student-athletes and coaches is just outstanding,” says men’s athletics director Mike Perrin, BA ’69, JD ’71. “They provide wonderful opportunities to aid in the growth and development of young people and those who are teaching, training, and mentoring them. We’re very fortunate to be working with them on our campus.”

The Center for Sports Leadership & Innovation welcomes donor support to help it grow. Learn more at sportsleadership.utexas.edu or contact csli@utexas.edu.

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