The following was compiled by Columbia’s Kelly Carroll
This post is another in a series from the Columbia University Sports Podcast, a 360-degree view of the sports business from the people leading it. Each podcast is approximately 35–45 minutes in length, and features industry insiders from all aspects of the business—from brand executives to startup founders to former MLB players—all talking about their work, the current state of the sports industry, and, more importantly, the future of the field.
After starring as a basketball player at Duke, in the WNBA, and overseas, Iciss Tillis is still not done. A few years ago, she retired from basketball to attend Thurgood Marshall School of Law, and, shortly after earning her J.D., moved to New York City to begin studies in Columbia University’s Sports Management Program. This past winter, Tillis sat down with Joe Favorito and Tom Richardson to talk about what motivates her to pursue all these goals, what it means to be an international athlete, and how to improve the WNBA, now in its 20th year.
“I want to know why”: Tillis says she knew from the age of six that she wanted to be a lawyer when she grew up. She can pinpoint that realization to the day: While kicking her tires after a particularly frustrating attempt to bike ride, Tillis was visited by her neighbor, an attorney, who tried to help. But Tillis was full of questions. “She said, ‘you sure are inquisitive. You’re going to be a lawyer one day,’” Tillis recalls. From that point on, she became fascinated with the law and legal issues. But even with this specific career path, Tillis, who played for WNBA teams like the Detroit Shock and the New York Liberty, was anxious about the road after basketball. “I was very nervous when I made that jump and retired to go to law school,” she says. “I was really afraid that I wouldn’t be as passionate about something else ever again in my life. On the first day of law school, I was so relieved to find out I was in the right place.”
Strength of community: Tillis views her inquisitive nature as an asset, one that was supported as a Duke basketball player. She says her college coach, Gail Goestenkors, always allowed her to be who she was, and, off the court, Tillis remembers being considered very “unique.” “I always took that in a good way,” she says. “I was always interested in cool conversations, picking people’s brains.” Her interest in the law was also supported at Duke, and Tillis worked for a North Carolina public defender during her time in school. This extended community surrounding Duke basketball, she says, allowed her to grow as a player, student, and person. “On your journey, people that you meet along the way—they helped me get to where I am because I think they saw how passionate I was,” she says.
Player advocate: Having played in both the WNBA and overseas, Tillis’ professional sports experience runs the gamut. Her diverse experiences as a player have motivated her to think harder about player issues and advocacy. “I look back on my career and realize how much power players actually have,” she says. “But as a player, you’re taught to play. Everything [else] is done for you.” Tillis questions practices like the payment of agents, and the signing of overseas contracts that are not enforced. Her insights on player issues also stretch to the college level, the NCAA, and the current argument over whether students should be compensated for participating in Division I athletics. By Tillis’ calculations—based on ticket revenue, merchandise sales, and her team’s success in the ACC and NCAA tournaments—she paid her college scholarship back in just one year. “You’re so young when you sign that declaration of intent to go to your university,” Tillis says. “What can be done [to make sure] it’s not binding your entire life?”
Immerse yourself in a culture: As an athlete, Tillis has lived in 12 different countries. In each, she made it a point to engage in the culture outside of basketball. She would mingle with the locals and go out to dinners with fans who attended her games. Tillis did two stints in Russia, playing in both Moscow and Saint Petersburg. As an African-American woman, she noted the cultural differences between Europe and its neighbor to the east, which isn’t known for its diversity—most black people in Russia, she explains, are other athletes, and it took Tillis a bit longer to fit in. “After a while [Russians are] just like anyone else,” she says. “Once you break that barrier, what I’ve learned is that, no matter where you are in the world, people are the same.”
Fixing the model: When Tillis analyzes the WNBA’s 20 years, she sees progress, but also much needed change. “The WNBA was really Mr. Stern’s baby—this was his model, and I’ll always really appreciate that, because if it wasn’t for him, we would only have overseas,” she says. “But there’s something that needs to be said about the former ABL and then the WBA. Why is it that they folded? What is it that’s going wrong there?” According to Tillis, WNBA arenas, home to NBA franchises, are too big. Being affiliated with an NBA team, she adds, means WNBA teams are a lower priority. For instance, WNBA teams often get kicked out of gyms when an NBA team goes far into the playoffs. Tillis calls for the WNBA to take a look at the MLS single-entity structure, as well as European sponsorship models. “So many things can be found by just talking to the players,” she adds. “These are the people that are playing in the games every single day. You hear the same complaints over and over and over again, year after year after year…But it seems like no one is really listening.”
The fuel to keep going: For a bit of inspiration, Tillis thinks back to when she was growing up. As a kid, she kept a photo of her father, heavyweight boxer James “Quick” Tillis, in her locker. “It fueled me as to where I am today,” she says. But probably for unexpected reasons. “After my dad was done with his boxing career, he really wasn’t able to move on to anything else,” Tillis explains. “I don’t want to be an athlete that was once great and then once my career is over I don’t have anything or I don’t do anything.” Knowing the potential exists for athletes to lose a sense of purpose after their playing days are over fuels Tillis as she finishes up her sports management studies and prepares for her life as a practicing attorney. “I’m not finished,” she says. “I still haven’t made a name for myself at the next level.”
These were just some of the topics Iciss Tillis discussed with Joe and Tom. The entire podcast, number 1 in the series, can be heard here.