For Sports Scholar, a New Perspective

Northeastern's Peter Roby makes unusual transition from head of sports research center to athletics director.
July 3, 2007

College athlete to assistant coach to head coach to athletics director -- it's a fairly common career trajectory for those who run sports programs.

Peter Roby, the new athletics director at Northeastern University, has taken that route. Played basketball at Dartmouth College. Made several stops as an assistant coach. Had the head coaching job at Harvard University. But what sets Roby's transition to athletics director apart is how he spent his years since leaving Cambridge.

After a stint as vice president of U.S. marketing at Reebok, Roby took over Northeastern's Center for the Study of Sport in Society, which conducts research and plans programming on sociological issues relating to athletics. For the past five years, Roby has weighed in on college sports topics such as majors dominated by athletes, increased spending on stadiums and the high-pressure world of recruiting.

"The influence of the travel team coaches and the shoe companies -- the people who have a vested interest and can exploit the athlete -- is too high," Roby said in an interview last week.

Never shy about criticizing the behavior of athletes, coaches and institutions, Roby has been vocal in his opposition to the use of performance-enhancing drugs and has pushed to get disadvantaged youth involved in sports. He has testified before the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics and has published several editorials on the role of sports in society. Now that Roby has a new bully pulpit, the question is how will he adjust to the transition between sports scholar and decision maker?

“The practical, everyday things you might have spoken about from a theoretical standpoint, now you have to put those values into play," he said. "That’s going to take time and consistency. I’ve been on the record on all these issues and everyone can see where I stand and how I will respond at Northeastern. I believe strongly in doing things a certain way, and I'm looking forward to being held accountable."

Roby said the university has forged the proper balance between athletics and academics, but he said the program has been lax on fund raising campaigns. He didn't elaborate on other plans for reform.

Added Richard Lapchick, who was Roby's predecessor as founder of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society and is now chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Program at the University of Central Florida: "There is no doubt that the challenges will be to move from the analytical look at what ails college sports to ways to make it live up to its ideals. There will be a hopeful expectation that will put added pressure on him to implement changes. I believe Peter and Northeastern are more than up to the challenges."

Roby will step down from the center on July 1, when he officially takes the reins of the Division I athletics department. He was named interim director this spring after his predecessor, Dave O’Brien, left to accept a faculty appointment as director of sport management at Drexel University.

“Peter brings a unique set of skills and perspective to college athletics,” said Joseph Aoun, Northeastern's president. “I am confident that under Peter’s leadership, Northeastern’s program will set a standard for ethical practices and athletic excellence.”

Lapchick said in a statement that Roby was primed for the position before his last two career moves. He chaired Northeastern's search committee for an athletics director in the mid-1990s and said he called Roby to gauge his interest in taking over the program at that time. But he said that Roby's experiences studying sports and being on the practical end at Reebok make him even more ready now to "create a showplace for college sports."

Added Roby: “It’s going to help me tremendously. Those challenges I have faced have made me a better leader."

According to Northeastern, Roby is the second black athletics director at a New England Division I institution. Lapchick notes that Roby's appointment comes at a time when only a fraction of the country's athletics directors are black.


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