Alumni Profile: Robin Harris '93
In the world of big-time college sports, the Ivy League might seem like an outsider. Its member teams do not offer athletic scholarships, and in the money-making sports of football and men’s basketball, they aren’t regular championship contenders. Yet as executive director of the Council of Ivy League Presidents and a member of multiple NCAA committees, Robin Harris ’93, T’87 has been instrumental in increasing the Ivy League’s media presence and creating an environment in which the league’s teams have thrived. She has also engaged with every major issue facing intercollegiate athletics today, from the health effects of repeated concussions sustained during play to the question of whether student-athletes should be paid.
In April, Harris returned to Duke Law for a Reunion-weekend panel discussion about the increasing “professionalization” of college athletics as they have become a multi-billion dollar business fueled by television dollars. Joined on the panel by ESPN analyst Jay Bilas ’92, T’86, who is a steadfast proponent of paying student athletes, and Riché McKnight T’94, global head of litigation at William Morris Endeavor | IMG , Harris argued firmly for the maintenance of amateurism and a college environment in which a student’s academic experience both feeds and is improved by participation in sports.
“Sports should be co-curricular,” she says in an interview, adding that athletics are a key part of the Ivy League experience. “Sports provide a tremendous opportunity for community on campus, for non-athletes and athletes alike. Some of our most engaged alumni are former athletes and passionate fans, and a lot of post-grad connections are made through these networks. In the Ivy League, everyone from the coaches and athletic directors to the presidents, is absolutely committed to a balance between athletics and academics.”
Harris also advocates supporting a wide-variety of non-revenue sports. She is concerned that some Division I schools (outside the Ivy League) are “headed towards a financial cliff” with their athletic programs and will soon have to choose between trying to compete with the “Power Five” conferences at a semi-professional level in football and basketball and trying to maintain a full offering of non-revenue sports.
Since taking the helm of the Ivy League in 2009, Harris has worked to reach consensus among its eight schools on rules and approaches to hot-button topics in college sports, and has brought those ideas to other conferences through her involvement on national boards and NC AA committees. For example, in 2016 the Ivy League announced that its football teams would eliminate “full-contact” practices during the season to reduce player concussions, and while other conferences have not yet followed suit, Harris says they’ve taken notice. The league also took the lead in proposing limits to recruiting athletes prior to their junior year in high school, a proposal the NC AA adopted in April for lacrosse. “I am excited to be pushing these conversations forward,” Harris says.
Tasked with easing Ivy League schools into the sports-media fray where they have traditionally had limited presence, Harris has orchestrated deals with such networks as ESPN, CBS , FOX, and NBC to broadcast some football, basketball, and lacrosse games. She has overseen the creation of the Ivy League Digital Network, a subscription service featuring live and on-demand content from all member schools’ sporting events. While it is not yet a net revenue generator, it has been very popular and “has exceeded our expectations,” she says. Most recently, Harris supervised the implementation of the inaugural Ivy League men’s and women’s basketball tournaments in 2017, during which all games were shown on the ESPN family of networks, including ESPN 2, ESPN U, and ESPN 3.
Harris says she knew she had found her dream job when she was recruited by the Princeton, N.J.- based Ivy League in 2009, having been impressed by the conference commissioners she met during her nine years at the NCAA. Yet as a political science major as an undergraduate at Duke, she saw herself headed into government work, not to a career at the highest level of sports administration. She recalls being amused when a career aptitude survey she took during her senior year indicated she was well suited to becoming an athletic director. Although she was a lifelong Yankees fan and a committed Blue Devil, she didn’t play sports. “I’m more active now than I was then,” says Harris, who has run several half-marathons.
It was during her undergraduate years, Harris says, that she came to appreciate Duke’s emphasis on excellence in sports alongside academics, a value shared by the Ivy League. She was a Blue Devils superfan taking in all the home games and road games she could for basketball, football, soccer, and baseball, and often sat with and got to know players’ parents and team officials, including former all-pro NFL running back Calvin Hill — Grant’s father — and Joe Alleva, who later became Duke’s athletic director. Although she didn’t realize it at the time, she was building a valuable professional network.
After graduating, Harris spent three years in the Office of Government Services of PricewaterhouseCoopers in Washington, D.C., working with such clients as the U.S. State Department and the CIA, before deciding that a law degree would be the best path to the government jobs she admired. The daughter of two lawyers, she says it seemed an inevitable move: “Law was in my genes.”
At Duke Law, Harris quickly found a mentor in her Contracts professor, John Weistart ’68, who also taught Sports Law. He encouraged her to consider a career that meshed her interest in policy with her love for sports, and suggested she volunteer in Duke’s athletic compliance office, which was arranged with the assistance of Alleva. The work inspired Harris, who became a notes editor on the Duke Law Journal, to write her student note on the procedural fairness of NCAA Enforcement Regulations, and to pursue other opportunities. Hill helped her meet women working with the Baltimore Orioles, where he was an executive, and she also spoke with others to learn more about professional sports. However, as a result of her experience at Duke and an internship at the ACC — thanks to an interview facilitated by then-Commissioner Gene Corrigan T’52, whom she met during a luncheon at the Fuqua School of Business — she opted to pursue a career in collegiate sports. “I preferred the student-athlete experience of college sports to the pure business of pro,” she says. Her ACC internship led to a post-graduate job offer from the NCAA.
Harris held a variety of positions over nine years with the NCAA, entering as director of the Committee on Infractions and ending as the chief of staff for Division I sports. She left to join Ice Miller and soon became co-chair of the firm’s collegiate sports practice, through which she developed management, marketing, and leadership skills, and furthered her relationships with university presidents and general counsels. Although the firm was based in Indianapolis, she was able to work from her home in Kansas, flexibility that she says she greatly appreciated as the mother of twin girls, who are now almost 12.
In 2016, the Sports Business Journal named Harris a “Game Changer,” a national honor for women who have a major impact on sports business. She was “delighted” to see the crowd of women attending the Game Changers Conference.
“When I first became a conference commissioner in 2009, I’d avoid sitting at a table with one of the other two or three female commissioners at our meetings,” she says. “We were all friends, but we didn’t want to position ourselves as a separate contingent. Now, there are so many female commissioners in NCAA Division I, I can’t avoid sitting at a table with another woman if I tried.” Noting that she has never felt discrimination on the job in her traditionally male-dominated industry, Harris credits her husband’s support and flexible work schedule as a database programmer as key to her success. They partner in juggling work and family duties, and she brings her daughters with her to sporting events whenever possible, happy to be modeling a rewarding career for them.
“I love it all,” she says. “It’s amazing to represent these schools, and to work with such a broad range of people who all get along with each other. I’m excited about where we’re headed as a league.”
She is also looking forward to attending her 25th Duke Law class reunion next year. “I’ve always really enjoyed my classmates,” she says. And 1993 was a good year for Duke Law: Two of Harris’ classmates, Mark Brandenburg and Kelly Capen-Douglas, are general counsels at Division 1 schools, The Citadel and the University of San Diego, respectively.
— Caitlin Wheeler ’97