Mark Chipman: Soaring success, grounded humility

Alum, chairman of True North Sports & Entertainment, which owns NHL’s Jets, headlines annual ethics talk

Mark Chipman

Mark Chipman, UND alum and chairman of True North Sports and Entertainment, which owns the Winnipeg Jets, talked about right and wrong in sports at this year’s Olafson Ethics Symposium. Photo by Dima Williams/UND Today.

When Mark Chipman climbed onto the stage, the klieg lights beamed at him so brightly he could barely see the hundreds-strong audience.

But scores of University of North Dakota students could see him — one of their own — who kept his ties to his alma mater as professional success swept in.

Executive chairman of the board of directors of True North Sports and Entertainment, which owns the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets professional hockey team, Chipman received a bachelor’s of economics, met his wife and obtained a law degree at UND.

On Nov. 8, the Winnipeg native returned to the University for the 14th annual installment of the Olafson Ethics Symposium, where he served as the keynote guest in a discussion about ethics in professional sports.

Organized by the UND College of Business & Public Administration (CoBPA), the event took place in the Memorial Union with the support of UND alum Robert Olafson and the SEI Investments Company.

To welcoming applause, Chipman sank into a brown leather chair besides CoBPA Dean Amy Henley, who moderated the conversation, unbuttoned his suit jacket and clasped his hands together.

In an hour or so, he would describe the occasion as a “mind-blowing” opportunity to talk about right and wrong in the realm of multi-million sports franchises.

But before that, he launched into an engaging ethics discourse that prodded sundry issues such as athlete recruitment, activism and pay as well as the importance of an organizational code of conduct and sports philanthropy.

‘Ethics is ethics’

Prompted by Henley, Chipman said that ethics in professional sports is no different than conscience in any other aspect of life and business.

“Professional sports is just an expression of our societal beliefs and how we want to spend our time in our leisure hours,” he said. “Ethics is ethics. It is doing the right thing.”

And yet, Chipman acknowledged that athletes often need to adhere to higher moral precepts than others due to the very public nature of their work, which social media has elevated into a non-stop scrutiny.

“They are watched very carefully and they are role models whether they like it or not,” Chipman said, adding that fans often expect athletes to be principled people, with or without a jersey on their back.

The right team

Chipman and the management of the Winnipeg Jets share that notion – and deliberately strive toward it.

It begins with expansive recruitment efforts, he said.

“We get to choose who plays for us and so I think a lot of teams nowadays spend a lot of time and money ensuring the quality of person that they get at least matches their ability,” Chipman said.

The Winnipeg Jets rely on a large scouting squad that identifies top talent – high-schoolers and college hockey players, who can be drafted as young as 18.

Then come the talks – with the prospects, their parents, their coaches, their principals – and the perusal of social media feeds. It is a painstaking process of courtship and judgement.

“It is a pattern of conduct that we are looking for,” Chipman said. “I think the one trait that we look for is really hard to spot. It is a quality of humility that we are looking for.”

Straining to pick just one of the Jets players as an exemplar, Chipman pointed to defenseman Tucker Poolman, a UND grad who signed a three-year contract with the team this past summer.

Olafson Ethics Symposium

Amy Henley, dean of College of Business and Public Administration, thanked Chipman for giving UND students a lesson in humility. Photo by Dima Williams/UND Today.

More than single player

Newcomers acquaint themselves with the team’s code of conduct. It may sound draconian, but it is far from it.

Rather it is an assertion that “you don’t just represent yourself; you represent our organization; you represent our community and we take that very, very seriously,” Chipman said.

While responsibility is the norm at the core of a larger-than-yourself ethos, Chipman celebrates athletes’ rights to strike out and speak up.

He talked about American winger (former Minnesota Gopher player) and Winnipeg captain Blake Wheeler’s decision to speak out on social-justice protests started by former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

“I thought that it took some strength to do that,” Chipman said. “Was Blake supposed to stick to sports just because he is a great athlete? He is not allowed to have an entitled view on politics?”

Giving back

Humility – or that elusive combination of character and competence – permeates Chipman’s ethical philosophy and extends from recruits to company staffers.

It also emanates toward the community. Through the True North Youth Foundation, Chipman and the Winnipeg Jets are giving back.

“We do it somewhat uniquely,” said Chipman. “A lot of professional teams raise money through various fundraising events or sales of 50-50 tickets and they give it away. We chose a different path, which was to create our own programs.”

There is the Winnipeg Jets Hockey Academy to increase school attendance, participation and graduation. Then, among other initiatives, there is “Project 11,” a mental-health school curriculum, started in the memory of player Rick Rypien, who fell victim to depression.

Other side of right

While sports afford a conduit for virtue, it could also breed misdeed.

Faults frequently spring from the money, fame and freedom that athletes bask in – a risky combination for players who acquire instant stardom after a relatively modest lifestyle, Chipman said.

But sometimes, an ostensibly innocuous pastime such as video games – Fortnite is the survival-action diversion du jour – might derail an athlete. Video games have grown into such a distraction that the Vancouver Canucks banned them earlier in the season.

The Jets have no intention, for now, to follow suit, Chipman said, despite an incident of a player getting so immersed into a game that he missed practice.

“If you spend time early on assessing the kids, you have a better chance of getting past those issues,” Chipman said.

For him, it all goes back to grounding humility in the face of soaring prosperity.

“I think that shows our students how important [humbleness] is in an early stage of life and we thank you for that,” Henley told Chipman.