01 Nov 2012
First and GoalTopics:
Julian Swearengin (MBA 2003) has loved football ever since he began playing the game at age 5. “Growing up poor and on welfare in Detroit, the classroom and the field were the only two places where I felt I stood out for a positive reason,” Swearengin recalls. Even after a blindside hit on his very first play in high school left him staggering and wondering if “football was worth the sickening feeling inside my head,” the pride he felt in playing the game well overcame any second thoughts. Eventually, he won an academic scholarship to the University of Michigan, where he competed for and won a spot on the football team, and earned a varsity letter and several championship rings.
Despite playing behind a Heisman Trophy winner and four NFL draft picks at wide receiver for most of his four years, Swearengin says, “I was living a dream every time I put on that helmet. And none of my teammates, from high school All-Americans to the last guys on the bench, needed any extra motivation to leave their guts, heart, and blood on the practice field for a chance to play in Michigan Stadium.” (In his senior year, on an undefeated team that earned a #5 national ranking, Swearengin ended his playing career as part of a thrilling 38-31 victory over the Washington Huskies in the 1993 Rose Bowl.)
Football, Swearengin says, gave him self-confidence, taught him personal accountability, and showed how bonding with teammates from all ethnic, class, and religious backgrounds in pursuit of a common goal could be “powerful and unforgettable.” As it turned out, even after his playing days were over, football still had plenty of life lessons to offer.
In 2006, while working at Merrill Lynch in New York City, Swearengin and a friend cofounded the Downtown Giants, Manhattan’s only public youth football team. Many of Swearengin’s HBS classmates provided annual support for the Downtown Giants’ scholarship program, which allowed children from all income levels the opportunity to play football or join a cheerleading team free of charge. “Not unlike a startup,” Swearengin says, “a new nonprofit uses a significant amount of duct tape to hold things together,” including, in the early days, stacking parents and children in an end zone to form makeshift goalposts on a field that lacked the real thing, as well as any yard lines or boundary lines.
For some of the children, Swearengin says, it was their first opportunity to play on a team and to experience a need to be accountable to their peers. Some were also lucky enough to take their first trips on an airplane as a Swearengin-coached team qualified for the American Youth Football National Championships in 2009 in Orlando, Florida. The tournament also presented leadership challenges as some of the team’s paperwork was mishandled by administrators. As a result, the team arrived in Orlando only to be told that just twelve of its already depleted roster of seventeen players could participate in the tournament. Faced with the choice of playing for the National Championship with twelve players or allowing his full seventeen to experience playing on the national level but forfeiting a shot at the title, Swearengin chose to play his entire team in two games against the champions of the Northeast and Southwest regions. Facing much larger teams, 98 degree heat, and the disappointing news that the championship was no longer in reach, the Downtown Giants won both games, only to be awarded a third-place trophy and then watch the teams they had just beaten play for the championship. In effect, an adults-only paperwork controversy cost the kids a championship of their own.
Fortunately, Swearengin noted, “The team all told me they felt like champions, which, for a coach, is a great feeling. There are many lessons that football can teach even if you never win a game. But for a team, lifting a trophy is the ultimate validation of the importance of making personal sacrifices for the good of the many.”
Not long after came another unhappy twist. Swearengin had been following news accounts of increasing evidence that repeated head blows and concussions could lead to brain injury, depression, and the early onset of dementia. (The attempted suicide in August 2010 of his Michigan team captain Corwin Brown, a former NFL player and member of the New England Patriots and Notre Dame coaching staffs, further galvanized his thinking.) The evidence also pointed to the dangers of youth football, specifically the cumulative effect of blows to the head (even of subconcussive force) in still-growing children.
The Downtown Giants board, at Swearengin’s direction, resolved that it would identify and then consult with the leading experts in youth sports concussions. That led to a meeting with Christopher Nowinski, a former Harvard football player and professional wrestler and the head of the Sports Legacy Institute at Boston University. Nowinski advised that the leading experts were about to recommend that children under the age of 13 (i.e., not yet in high school) not play tackle football. Swearengin made the difficult decision that he could no longer support tackle football for kids 13 or under; however, his recommendation to the board that the Downtown Giants switch to flag football, even just for those children 6,7, and 8 years old, was rejected. As a result, he resigned from the board of the organization he had founded to promote the sport that he loved.
Today, Swearengin, an attorney who for 14 years has represented companies facing class action litigation and government investigations, is a principal associate general counsel and a chief litigation counsel at Bessemer Trust in New York City, and an Adjunct Professor of Law at New York Law School. With his legal and other expertise, he also does pro bono work for the Sports Legacy Institute. “I continue to watch and be a fan of college and pro football,” notes Swearengin. “The risks are now well-known, and grown men, like soldiers, miners, and pilots, can make informed decisions to assume the risks. For kids, it is a different story entirely.” Swearengin is currently exploring the possibility of forming a youth football league on Manhattan’s Lower East Side—but this time it will be flag football only.
Life around football—both during and after his playing days—has taught Swearengin a lot; indeed, it has been a transformational experience. Given that, how does HBS compare, in terms of being a learning experience? What are Swearengin's “takeaways” from his time at Soldiers Field? Says Swearengin, “The team approach at HBS, from study groups, to Crimson Greetings, to section intramural sports, offers great lessons for those who have not been lucky enough to be a part of a successful team and learn its unique lessons. Natural leaders often float to the top in for- and nonprofit organizations and on athletic teams. But as most football players have learned at the expense of an angry coach snarling in their ear, in all of these varied settings, the fact that every other member of the team still plays a critical and valuable role should always be at the front of the leaders’ minds and a part of the team’s culture. Nobody can do it alone, and everyone must be accountable. One missed block by a seemingly less-important player can easily destroy a play otherwise destined for the end zone. That means it is critical for the team’s leaders to make the player responsible for that block feel valued and important to the mission, because he truly is.”
Class of MBA 2003, Section I