Karen Boleska, the director of the program housed in the College of Education, has steadily worked to cultivate connections in the athletics industry to benefit her students and the St. Louis community since the program’s inception in 2020.
The most prominent example is UMSL’s position as the official higher education partner of St. Louis CITY SC. The program also has numerous informal relationships with minor league and professional organizations, such as the Alton River Dragons, O’Fallon Hoots and St. Louis Blues, that have led to internships, mentorship opportunities and job offers for UMSL students.
Now, the sport management program is embarking on its next official partnership with JustUs System, Inc. The nonprofit organization is dedicated to filling the gap between the education system and the court system.
JustUs System works toward those goals with programs such as the Future Lawyers Camp – a weeklong experience with state appeals and circuit courts – and by providing ongoing mentorship to students through college. In recent years, the organization has also partnered with the general counsels of professional sports teams to organize workshops and offer internship and networking opportunities.
Natasha Scruggs – St. Louis native, defense attorney and founder of JustUs System – said the pre-program surveys her students fill out show that many believe the only way they can be successful in adulthood is to be a professional athlete. It’s something Boleska has observed as well. The two have both worked to change that perception by building paths to alternative careers in athletics. Now, they’re combining their efforts.
“The big thing that our partnership will do is provide students that option,” Scruggs said. “It’s kind of like opening a door that wasn’t there. Maybe there was a wall there, but now there’s a door there. I think that this partnership is going to change the way that people look at students, at their trajectory.”
The partnership intends to create a recruiting channel from JustUs System to UMSL for students interested in sport law or sport management careers, while UMSL provides resources to JustUs System’s programs, from event spaces to experiential learning trips.
And it all started with a LinkedIn post.
The sport management program emphasizes practical skills and professional development, and Boleska regularly touts the importance of LinkedIn. So, it’s no surprise that the social media platform brought Boleska and Scruggs together.
“My students will not be shocked or surprised that’s how I met her,” Boleska said with a laugh. “Someone in my network had commented on a lawyer in sport conference that she had posted about. I just reached out and I think we met on Zoom within a week of connecting.”
The two had much in common. Boleska and Scruggs are both former collegiate athletes who went on to earn terminal degrees in their fields. Over the course of their conversation, they also discovered that they had both taken students to volunteer at the Super Bowl as part of their respective programs.
There was clearly an opportunity to collaborate.
“I felt like the passion was the same,” Scruggs said. “We had similar programming, and I knew that my students would deeply benefit from a partnership with UMSL.”
Scruggs found her passion as a student in the Hazelwood School District, where she saw firsthand the gaps in the education system. She witnessed police brutality and her classmates disappearing into the court system.
Wanting to change things, Scruggs majored in criminal justice as an undergraduate and went on to attend the Mississippi College School of Law. During her first law school internship, she worked in the juvenile court in St. Louis. It was a formative experience.
“As soon as I did that internship, the idea for JustUs System was born, and it was basically a nonprofit that would assist kids to never enter that system,” Scruggs said. “In that system, it’s kids accused of crimes, but it’s also kids that are in foster care. It’s just kids that are in crisis, honestly. So, JustUs System was created to help students never go in and help them successfully transition to adulthood.”
Scruggs founded JustUs System in 2016, just two weeks after graduating with her JD. At first, the organization had a more modest scope. The first cohort included 30 students from the St. Louis area, who participated in the weeklong Future Lawyers Camp with the 22nd Circuit Court.
For the first few years, students participated in the camp, which includes observing one to two court cases and participating in mock trials, and received mentorship. The program has grown to include other activities such as projects to explore alternatives to the juvenile justice system and school suspensions and to encourage civic engagement. Participation in the program has also expanded beyond St. Louis to include 13- to 16-year-old students throughout Missouri.
The operation really hit a turning point around 2020. That’s when Scruggs, who is based in Kansas City, Missouri, took several students to Super Bowl LIV between the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers. Afterward, she realized JustUs System could use sports as a vehicle for social justice.
“Everything took off,” she said. “I started getting opportunities that I needed for the students. It was just coming so easily. It is the best pivot I could have made. I think it’s because I have that law degree. I can call any team and just talk to the general counsel because there’s not a lot of lawyers in the world. As soon as they see that I’m an attorney, they talk to me and want to know how they can help.”
The Chicago Bears were one of the teams interested in helping Scruggs. In August, JustUs System students participated in a three-day workshop with the Bears’ front office legal staff. In the past, students have also worked with teams including the Arizona Coyotes, Arizona Diamondbacks, Kansas City Royals and St. Louis Cardinals. Scruggs said experiences like those are key to students furthering their education.
“When I started JustUs System, I wanted to increase the number of Black applicants to law school,” she said. “It doesn’t start in college. College is too late. It has to start in grade school, in middle school, in high school to give them those opportunities.”
Boleska is motivated by a similar philosophy. She noted that many of her students never thought they were going to attend college because their strengths – interpersonal communication, event planning, organization – aren’t applicable on math or science tests. They’re still valuable skills, but it’s a matter of exposing students to careers where they can be utilized.
“I want to increase awareness that sport law is an option; that sport management is an option, and that sport management doesn’t mean going pro,” she said. “It means you can work for a YMCA – maybe some of these students grew up in a Y or maybe that’s where they went on Saturday afternoons.”
The partnership will help spread the message that there is a place for those students in higher education, particularly at UMSL. It will also offer a chance for sport management students to provide the mentorship many of them lacked and encourage the next generation of Tritons.
“I bet 90% of the students, when they begin to interact with these students, are either going to see themselves or wish they had someone like that when they were their age,” Boleska said. “A lot of these students didn’t have that. We’re a new program, so we don’t have many alumni yet. Now these students get to do it. They’re going to be so excited that they get to be that person that they didn’t get to have.”
The first collaboration will be next month at Super Bowl LVIII in Las Vegas. Boleska and Scruggs will be leading a group of more than 30, including UMSL and JustUs System students, to volunteer at the event.
After that, Boleska anticipates hosting various in-person and digital activities including resume workshops, networking events, guest speakers and Q&A sessions. She added that JustUs System participants will also be able to volunteer with UMSL at sporting events such as Arch Madness, the Missouri Valley Conference Men’s Basketball Tournament.
“I’m happy about this partnership,” Scruggs said. “A lot of my friends went to UMSL. A lot of kids that went to my school went to UMSL. I know it’s definitely at the heart of St. Louis. When I first started, my goal was to change St. Louis and to help specific issues in St. Louis. So, this partnership is really fulfilling that dream.”