Q&A with Dan Lebowitz: Harnessing the power of sport

In October, Dan Lebowitz became the third executive director of Sport in Society in the 25-year history of the social justice organization. Following in the footsteps of founding director Richard Lapchick and his successor Peter Roby, now the director of athletics, is an exciting opportunity, he said.

As the center readies to celebrate its 25th anniversary, Lebowitz comments on the past and future of the center, and how sport continues to play a positive role for people of all backgrounds.

You’re the third executive director of Sport in Society. As you celebrate the 25th anniversary of the center’s founding, what goes through your head?

I feel honored to follow in Richard Lapchick’s and Peter Roby’s footsteps. They are among the greatest visionaries in the past century in terms of how the power of sport can positively impact social and racial justice issues and gender equity.

Why is sport so important to so many people?

It’s a universal language. It doesn’t matter if you speak English, or Spanish or French. The passion people have for the competitive nature and collaborative spirit of sport is something all people can understand. It’s one place where those of different races and religions can all intersect at a point of common cause.

How will urban engagement become more integral with Sport in Society in the next 25 years?

When I look into the future, I consider how we’re centered in an urban area. Northeastern has made a major step toward engaging the surrounding communities both athletically and academically. Our program is about using the power of sport to further this engagement.
We have a number of programs that address eradicating youth violence and that celebrate diversity rather than the tolerance of diversity. We also have a program that addresses men’s violence against women. It’s essential because the concept that women are objectified or disposable teaches the wrong construct of what manhood is.

How should manhood be defined?

It should be defined as a way that a man can be nurturing in a relationship, help empower his children, and the women in his life, and be a positive force.

How do athletes convey these positive messages?

We use athletes to sell that message because people see athletes as the ultimate embodiment of manhood, and yet, we’re trying to change the way people view manhood in a culture that plays up powerful physicality, but doesn’t equally play up the emotions of caring, concern and compassion.

What role of did sport play in your own life?

I was disabled as a youth. I wore leg braces until I was 13. My life changed when I met a doctor who was the team doctor of the New England Whalers, the former ice hockey team. He was one of the first forward-thinkers about the intersection of strength training and overcoming disability. I went to see him almost every day at Children’s Hospital. I did an enormous number of exercises every day. From that I shed the leg braces, and became a competitive athlete, a power lifter and body builder and martial artist. I attribute this to sport.

It must have been difficult for a young boy to navigate in an athletic environment that, as you say, embraced physical power.

People treated me like an outcast, like I wasn’t part of the norm. Then when I became this powerful person in a physical sense, people treated me in a different way. They all wanted to be around me. That dichotomy was never lost on me. And so this job is something I take seriously. We deal a lot with issues of disenfranchisement here. Whether it’s poverty, whether it’s finding locations where people can participate in sport, whether it’s disability — we deal a lot with how sport can change the landscape of social and racial justice. I feel blessed to be here.

Looking forward, what do you see in the next 25 years for Sport in Society?

Going forward, I’d like the center to build on its history. Through the power of sport, it’s moved history along to create greater social justice. I want this center to become an even more important urban-engagement arm for this university. Situations of economic need in neighborhoods are dire in good times, and daunting in bad times. I want the center to reach out to the high schools, the middle schools and the elementary schools and teach programs about diversity and give opportunity and access to urban kids.