In mid-January, Northeastern athletics director Peter Roby found himself in a San Diego hotel ballroom for a convention with some 800 other athletic directors, conference commissioners, and administrators.
What was supposed to be an open dialogue about the state of the NCAA became a complex, high-stakes conversation about the NCAA’s possible redesign, autonomy for the five power conferences, and player stipends, among other hot-button issues.
But Roby kept hearing the term “values” being thrown around. He had to interject.
“If we’re going to have a conversation about values,” Roby said, “then we should understand how those things are lived on a daily basis and what it looks like when you’ve got a set of values that underpin what your activities are.”
A quick glimpse at the college landscape made him wonder just how committed people were to those “values.”
A week before the convention, Louisville hired Bobby Petrino to be its football coach with a seven-year contract worth $3.5 million annually. Petrino was just two years removed from being fired by Arkansas after an embarrassing scandal involving a motorcycle accident and an improper relationship with a female employee, but Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich called Petrino a “changed person.”
At the convention, Roby spoke out about it.
“I just didn’t feel like the hiring of someone like Bobby Petrino was consistent with what we say our values are,” Roby said. “I wanted people to understand that if we’re going to put values on paper, we better be prepared to defend them and to be held accountable for them.”
Two weeks after the conference, football players at Northwestern took the first steps toward being formally represented by a labor union, a move that boldly challenged the idea of amateurism at the foundation of college sports.
At the same time, murmurs about paying players were only getting louder, schools were bouncing from conference to conference with money playing a large part in many of the moves, and Colorado State was crafting plans to build a $226 million football stadium to attract students.
It all seemed backward to Roby.
“When we have these conversations about unionizing and people are making $5 million and $7 million to coach, it seems like all the headlines want to talk about paying athletes or what’s fair to them or their employees and they need to be looked at that way,” Roby said. “That’s such a small percentage of all the other things that are going on that I just don’t want that to get lost in these conversations.”
The NCAA finds itself on the verge of several seismic decisions — notably the possibility of empowering the Southeastern Conference, Pac-12, Big Ten, Big 12, and Atlantic Coast Conference to make their own rules — but for Roby, perspective is important.
The schools in those five conferences make up just a fraction of the nearly 1,300 schools in the NCAA’s membership, but they drive perception and in turn drive the conversation.
“Because they’re at such a high profile, they get the majority of the headlines,” Roby said. “Then that paints the picture with the public that that’s what it looks like on everybody’s campus or that’s what everybody’s experience is, when in reality it’s not that at all.
“So I think it’s important that we have to contextualize what we’re doing here, that this could be a watershed moment in the NCAA and yet it’s being done for the very small percentage of the total of over 400,000 athletes that could participate in the NCAA at Divisions 1, 2, and 3. We can’t lose sight of that.”
Still, an unofficial poll of people at the convention showed that 58 percent of them supported the idea of giving the conferences with the most resources autonomy.
Roby saw it as people accepting the inevitable.
“I think there was a resignation,” Roby said. “People are resigned to the idea that this is going to happen because the big-money influences want it to happen. Now it’s just a matter of what it looks like.
“So I think that 58 percent vote is reflective of people kind of indicating that, ‘Hey, we recognize that this is likely going to happen.’ It’s not necessarily something that we would try to stop, but we have to know more about the specifics before we actually go and vote for real.”
One of the first things Roby took note of when he went through a packet of information given to him before the convention was the slight tweak in language that had been a staple in the NCAA dialogue.
Instead of striving for “competitive equity,” the new notion was “competitive opportunity.”
The difference was small but significant.
“I think the autonomous five have taken exception to that phrasing because they felt hamstrung by it,” Roby said. “That equity for everybody is not necessarily their goal because they have a whole other set of resources that the majority of people in Division 1 don’t have.
“So they’ve coined the phrase ‘competitive opportunity,’ which means that they want to be able to provide those opportunities to their student-athletes based on the resources that they have available to them.”
Roby said he understood the reasoning, but wanted to use the same wording to show the vantage point from schools without the same resources. Just four years ago, Northeastern cut its football program in an effort to prioritize its programs and invest in its strengths. If autonomy for the more well-off schools and conferences was inevitable, Roby said, then maybe there was a way for those schools to share more of their resources with other schools that aren’t in their position.
“These 65 schools that represent these five autonomous conferences are representing a very small percentage of the overall number of students that participate under the umbrella of the NCAA,” Roby said. “And for the majority of folks, the issues that are being wrestled with with the autonomous five are not the same, which is the rationale for that autonomous five asking for a different set of rules that pertain to them.
“I get that. I understand it, but I think we also have to then say that’s a very significant departure from the history of the organization. What kinds of things are also going to change that will benefit the rest of the membership since we have the vast majority of students in our charge?”
For Roby, “values” isn’t a word to be used casually. Before taking over as the head of Northeastern athletics in 2007, he was the director of the school’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society, looking at college athletics through the lens of social justice.
“The values of Sport in Society were very consistent with my own as a person and as a professional in terms of understanding the power of sport, the influence that sport can have on a person’s life or on a society,” he said.
“It’s incredibly pervasive and when used appropriately it can create real social change and bring people together.
“I still feel like I might have some recognition and some credibility from my time with Sport in Society that I want to continue to use that when it comes to issues like this in the NCAA.”Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.