SBJ/November 5-11, 2012/Colleges

Northeastern’s Roby talks sportsmanship

Northeastern University Athletic Director Peter Roby might feel like a lonely voice in the wilderness. In this age of conference realignment and billion-dollar TV contracts when college administrators are perceived to be big-business CEOs, Roby still preaches quaint notions like sportsmanship and the
value of the student-athlete experience. The former vice president of marketing at Reebok not only preaches it, he teaches it at Northeastern’s Sport in Society program, where he helped found the master’s in sports leadership. While he understands that he’s talking to an often-skeptical audience, Roby, who just recently was appointed to the NCAA men’s basketball committee, strongly believes that sportsmanship still has a strong place in college athletics. He shared some of those thoughts with SportsBusiness Journal staff writer Michael Smith.


You know that when you talk about sportsmanship in college athletics, a lot of people are rolling their eyes, right?

ROBY: I’ve been in presentations where I’ve seen it. I had it happen to me when I took over as AD at Northeastern. In my first staff meeting, I was emphasizing the importance of a positive student-athlete experience, and talking about our core values as the coach being an educator. And after a few days, it got back to me through different channels that I didn’t want to win. It’s interesting how people equate your commitment to young people and their development and their education to “You don’t want to win.” We’ve been socialized to think that’s not how we do this. If you’re keeping score, then you must not want to win at all costs. Well, I never said that I didn’t want to win. What I said was I didn’t want to win at the expense of the athletes. That’s what I said, but people interpret that to mean, “Oh, geez, this guy is here to do some kind of social experiment and we’ve got to hold hands around the campfire and sing together.” I was trying to send a message to them right away about what’s important to me as the leader of the department.

Administrators are running multimillion-dollar businesses and dealing with hugely high-profile and high-pressure situations. Do they have time to think about sportsmanship?

ROBY:
It’s something that needs to be ever-present. When you’re keeping score, people want to win and they’re willing to do anything to win. There are different motivations for why people want to coach, why they want to own a team, why they decide who gets picked and who doesn’t. You’ll always have parents who want their kids to be the best and they’ll do anything they can. We have to educate folks about the downside of pushing too much. That doesn’t mean we don’t want to win or that we’re not competitive people, but there also should be a place for humility, perspective and sportsmanship. … The salaries folks are making, the revenue that’s being generated, that’s when we lose sight of what we’re there to do. When people lose their perspective, they start to make a lot of bad decisions. We see it all the time in corporate America, in marriages, in athletic departments that are committed to win at all costs so they make more money and keep feeding the monster.

Is conference realignment further mixing the message?

ROBY:
It’s not to our betterment. It’s to our detriment. The lack of camaraderie and loyalty is diminished. Now people don’t trust one another when they’re in the same room because they’ve seen too many examples of “We’re with you” and then next month they leave. The motivation of putting yourself in the best possible financial position is influencing those long-standing rivalries and what’s best for your fans and alumni. … Unfortunately what happens is that decisions about where you go and who you play are driven by the opportunity to cash in financially, the influence of football, television, your marketing rights, all that. You wonder, “What does this have to do with higher education?” and you’re hard-pressed to come up with a good answer.

There is more and more public discussion about the role of the university president, right?

ROBY: There are too many examples of athletics being a separate entity from the rest of the institution, and then we wonder why there’s no control. The Carnegie Report in 1929 addressed the professionalism of college athletics in 1929. We were talking about it then and we’re still talking about it now. Back then they were talking about how the presidents needed to have more control of athletics, and we’re still talking about that. You’re starting to see with some of the NCAA reform where presidents are getting more engaged. That’s appropriate.

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