Change Maker: Sarbjit “Sab” Singh, Assistant Professor, Sports Management, Farmingdale State College & Publisher, Sports Doing Good

Exercise is an important measure of well-being. But in New York City, the Equality Indicators has found those at the bottom end of the income ladder are less likely to exercise than more affluent individuals. All age groups benefit from exercise, but the opportunity to do so is not equally available. For example youth sports leagues and after-school programs increasingly rely on fees paid by children and parents resulting in a “pay-to-play” environment that can often exclude children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

With issues such as economic polarization affecting who gets to play sports, there is growing awareness among educators that social issues around sports and exercise should be addressed in the classroom. Sab Singh, assistant professor of sports management at Farmingdale State College, asks his students to think of sports through this lens. His commitment to sports as a vehicle for improving the lives of everyone, especially the most disadvantaged, has been channeled into Sports Doing Good, an educational website featuring news, stories, and original content that connects social justice and sports.

The Equality Indicators spoke with Singh about his work, his background, and his inspiration for doing the work he does.

Your academic research includes work on societal perceptions and responses to major sporting events and news such as Kathryn Smith recently being named the first female full-time coach in the NFL. Looking through the lens of equality, what do you consider the most significant event or improvement in the world of sports in the past five years?

The advent of Title IX legislation in 1972 was and remains a game-changer in the world of sports and social and educational equality, which translates into economic equalizers. In the past five years, I would say the growth of sports and social responsibility, also known as sport for development and sport and social change. I have seen a variety of stakeholders including athletes, coaches, fans, teams, leagues, corporate sponsors, governmental entities, and nonprofit organizations—individually and in partnerships—address a variety of social challenges, including access to sport and athletics for those from economically and socially disadvantaged backgrounds. As you referenced, this is a huge problem with serious long-term consequences for individuals and communities at large. The biggest names in sports, such as LeBron James, FC Barcelona soccer club, the NBA, Nike, ESPN and many others are bringing attention to the world of sports for disadvantaged populations, which helps a lot.

What is one of the most significant hurdles the world of sports must overcome in regards to equality? If you could make one change to the way the sports world operates, what would it be?

I would like to pick two things. The first is something that the sports world alone cannot fix and that is the overall income inequality we see around the world. Estimates vary but maybe half the world struggles to fulfill basic life needs. While important, sports will take a back seat to water, food, and shelter. Regarding a sport-related hurdle, I look at the distortion of the business model of sport. The distortion is a result of the monopoly status that almost every single pro sports league enjoys. Not having to compete like most other businesses, pro sports especially have discounted the average fan, making going to a pro sports event prohibitively expensive. Each of the pro sports leagues frets about not being able to connect with younger generations. Because of that, I would like to see pro sports make the financial commitment to develop more and more grassroots initiatives, providing resources for everything from coaching, equipment, and facilities, to the maintenance of gym periods in our grammar and high schools.

In a place like New York City, what is the role of sports in the community? What is the best way to involve city kids in sports activities?

Sports are very important. They have an impact on personal development, entertainment, social interactions, education, even jobs. Sports seemingly have always held a prominent place in New York City and its surrounding areas and I don’t see that changing.

One of the best ways to involve city kids in sport activities is to make sure they are part of each child’s educational portfolio. We must have gym class in all schools. We should also have recess—and if possible, after-school activities. This is all in addition to team sports that schools offer. There is a challenge in the face of tight budgets to provide these opportunities to kids in the city, especially the ones who do not have to resources to pay for non-school-related programs, leagues, and opportunities. I am bothered by the pay-for-play model. I understand it but it really should be minimized. We don’t charge students for band or for math and science. If we are serious about childhood development, we will work on maintaining a prominent place for sports in every student’s school day.

Did you play sports as a kid? Did you have aspirations to play professionally? If you could play for any team today, who would it be?

I was very fortunate to have had the opportunity to play a lot of sports. Basketball and soccer were my favorite, with the occasional excursion to a tennis court. Soccer became the sport I specialized in, and I was lucky to be part of a great travel club and high school team. I think every kid wouldn’t mind being a successful pro athlete, but I knew my limitations. I am really happy I had the opportunities I did as a young person. I maintain friendships with many of my former teammates. I also still play sports, including soccer. As a 46-year-old, I am grateful to have the capability to do so.

Which team would I play for? I would say any of my favorite teams, especially the Georgetown Hoyas and New York Knicks. In soccer, maybe Manchester United or the original New York Cosmos. At this stage of my life, I would rather be an executive/leader of any of these entities.  I think that is where I could do my best work.

Singh earned his BSBA cum laude in finance from Georgetown University and his MBA and JD from Emory University. He joined the full-time faculty at Farmingdale State in August 2010 after 12 years as a management consultant to Fortune 500 companies, new companies, and non-profit enterprises. He is the publisher and lead writer for Sports Doing Good, a leading resource for academics, non-profit management, and corporate brands.