Social Welfare and Sports Initiative

A Social Justice Game Changer

The Need

During the summer of 2019, professional athletic leagues such as the NBA and the NFL took steps to enact policies to formally address the mental health and wellness issues that many players face. For example, NBA teams must now retain one or two licensed mental health professionals to be available to players on a voluntary basis. These professionals must have experience in assessing and treating clinical mental health issues. In addition, NFL teams are now mandated to retain a behavioral health team clinician  who supports the emotional, mental health, and well-being of their players. Star athletes, from Olympic medalist swimmer Michael Phelps to professional tennis player Serena Williams, have been outspoken about the need for mental health and social welfare services for athletes. Mental health issues are but one of the challenges athletes face over their life course. Both current and former athletes can carry with them a number of other circumstances that are unique to the experience of athletics including depression, anxiety, substance abuse, chronic pain, and difficulty transitioning to new employment after an athletic career has ended — all of which fall within the purview of social welfare.

As one of the leading schools of social welfare in the United States, our mission is to keep pace with individual and societal needs ignited by fast-paced social change. We continue to conduct research, teaching, and practice in direct services in ways that elevate and inform the conversations, social policies, and programs that involve populations most in need of help. Accomplishing these goals necessitates that we fortify our infrastructure in ways that allow us to create innovative preventive measures to obviate problematic outcomes for individuals, families, and social systems, and to quickly design and orchestrate immediate responses when the unexpected occurs. We are currently applying this logic as we consider the needs of athletes in a rapidly changing world.

Our Goal

In order to address these needs and to develop practitioners who can serve athletes of all ages, Berkeley Social Welfare is launching a cutting-edge high-impact initiative — the Social Welfare and Sports Initiative: A Social Justice Game Changer. This initiative, which is the first of its kind in a school of social welfare, will integrate social work knowledge and practice within the sports industry and within other industries that impact sports including community advocacy, policy, and research. The ultimate goal of this initiative is to improve the lives and well-being of athletes of all ages and the communities that they reside in and serve. Additionally, our interdisciplinary approach to successfully execute this effort include the following campus partners: Cal Athletics, Haas School of Business, the Graduate School of Education, and Berkeley Social Welfare alumni.

The Social Welfare and Sports Initiative is anchored firmly in perspectives on social justice and equity and has four main objectives:

  1. Further develop the athletes' consciousness and skill sets so that they are better equipped to navigate life and manage family and work before, during, and after their athletic experiences ultimately leveraging their skills to uplift communities they desire to support.
  2. Combine sports, social welfare and social justice as a platform for building community.
  3. Increase and diversify the social welfare workforce by leveraging this initiative as a pipeline to recruit more men of color to the profession as a whole.
  4. Establish the Institute on Sports and Social Welfare (ISSW) as a world-class hub for research, training, and practice.

In order to achieve these goals, the initiative will be launched in the following three phases:

Phase 1

We will provide short-term workshops and conferences that expand the social welfare knowledge base of those who work in athletic-related fields, including social workers, community and business leaders, leaders in athletic organizations, and former athletes. The goal of our first workshop is to focus on athletes who have developed non-profit organizations that address the needs of vulnerable populations. We will familiarize them with the role of trauma in the lives of the children, families, and communities that they work with; and educate and train them on how to promote a culture of safety, empowerment, and healing to effectively support trauma victims. Subsequent workshops throughout the year will address (but are not limited to) the following topics: athletes and the criminal justice system; childhood adultification; developing social advocacy and social policies germane to athletics; parenting athletes; family mental health; transitions in the life course of athletes; weathering and physical health; traumatic brain injuries; retirement; caregiving by and for athletes; child athletes and links to social services; and families, friends, and finances. We also plan to host and sponsor a national conference that's influenced by sports and social welfare with particular attention given to women aspiring to leadership positions in the athlete development industry.

Phase 2

Berkeley Social Welfare will launch a Masters in Social Welfare (MSW) program with an emphasis in sports. We will develop and implement a structured curriculum to create a social welfare and sports workforce. The curriculum will emphasize social advocacy, research, case coordination, counseling, policy development, and physical, behavioral, and mental health issues that emerge for athletes across the life course. This opportunity will be available to students at UC Berkeley, including student athletes, who wish to pursue an MSW. Community and business leaders, leaders in athletic organizations, and former athletes will also have the opportunity to enroll in the sports and social welfare certificate program via our executive education platform. At the end of their training, our students will be awarded a certificate in social welfare and sports and be well positioned to obtain administrative, leadership, program development, and service delivery positions in the sports industry at the professional, collegiate, and youth services levels. Specifically, these social workers will be trained to work with athletes on and off the field in areas such as their mental and physical health, life skills, family matters, preparation for careers and retirement, relocation and displacement issues, and human development.

Phase 3

We will create the Institute on Sports and Social Welfare (ISSW). Grounded in social justice and equity, ISSW will be a world-class hub for research, training, and practice for issues that athletes face from childhood to retirement, including K-12 and collegiate educational settings as well as professional athletic organizations. ISSW will also focus on the social policies that shape the lives of athletes and their families as well as the structures and practices of organizations that house athletic enterprises. In addition, it will explore and implement ways that sports fortify communities, particularly those in need. ISSW aims to develop interdisciplinary research initiatives on sports and social welfare bringing together scientists and practitioners to develop cutting-edge research on the most important issues affecting this population and related organizations.

To achieve our goals we seek funding to:

  1. support the programmatic infrastructure of ISSW, including the development of workshops, conferences, and partnerships with schools and community organizations.
  2. recruit diverse faculty to SSW who have extensive expertise in social welfare and sports, who will serve as the intellectual anchors and leaders of this initiative, and who will prepare students to become leaders in this field.
  3. increase the social welfare workforce by developing pipelines to recruit candidates into our MSW program some of whom may have been student athletes or retired professional athletes.
  4. provide fellowships and create internship opportunities for students in the sports arena so that they have the required on-the-ground field training.