Carolyn Campbell-McGovern had such a great experience playing field hockey and lacrosse at Bates College that she wanted to make a career out of it. Her academic advisors weren’t convinced such a job even existed, let alone a career.
Now the deputy executive director of the Ivy League and new chair of the Division I Legislative Council, Campbell-McGovern has certainly proven those advisors wrong. Including her time as an MBA student at Temple (when she worked in the athletics business office and with the women’s lacrosse team), she has made a career of her passion for more than 25 years.
She takes the reins of the Legislative Council at an interesting time. In the wake of the Aug. 9-10 presidential retreat that set the agenda for the upcoming year, the Council will be examining legislation in a different way this cycle. Because the presidents are interested in reducing the number of insignificant rules and want new rules to focus on broader principles instead of details, the Council’s role in representing the will of the 31 conferences will change. And Campbell-McGovern is responsible for leading that change.
“Moving forward, the Legislative Council has expertise and knows exactly how we got to where we are (with the size and intricacies of the Manual) and can be very helpful in unraveling the knot that the NCAA rules have become,” she said. “I hope we’ll have a role going forward.”
Campbell-McGovern said the reason the rules are so complex and voluminous is because the membership made them that way, mostly to address loose ends.
“We made the decision to have each of those rules,” she said. “College athletics is a complex, competitive business. Coaches are all creative about looking for a competitive edge, and as soon as they find one, if we don’t want everybody else doing the same thing, we put in a rule to stop them from doing that.”
She counseled some caution to the group assigned to tackle the rules issue, saying the working group members will essentially have to pick their poison.
“We’re going to have to tolerate either a lack of clarity if we want fewer pages in the Manual, or a lack of control,” she said. “I’m looking forward to seeing how this goes.”
The compliance field attracted Campbell-McGovern because of the intellectual and analytical challenges involved with writing rules to apply to a variety of institutions and her strong belief in the principles those rules support. Her experience as a student-athlete gave her a taste of skills she has needed throughout her career – leadership, teamwork, goal-setting – and also instilled in her a passion to advocate for student-athlete well-being.
“I came up through the Ivy League, where the student-athlete experience has always been the primary focus. Other conferences have different pressures and might not have the same focus. I can give a voice to the needs of student-athletes,” she said.
She often does, speaking passionately on well-being issues and arguing her conference’s position to the Council. As chair, she knows her charge will be different. She will be managing the entire process instead of shepherding only her own priorities. She admits she’ll have to pay attention to balancing her role as chair with her position as Ivy League representative, but she believes she can do it effectively.
Campbell-McGovern has called the Ivy League home since 1993. While she has risen through the ranks within the conference, her ultimate goal is to be an athletics director at a smaller school, some place where she can focus more on leadership and student-athlete success than some of the trappings involved with leading a high-profile department.
“I’d like the opportunity to set a direction, to set up a team and work toward our goals,” she said. “I’d like to take on the challenge of making the decisions about structure and personnel and values.”
With that as a goal, Campbell-McGovern believes there is room in Division I for her type of small school and the larger operations that grab all the headlines.
“Knowing that people come from different backgrounds and different institutions with different priorities is actually fun,” she said. “When push comes to shove, when you’re actually competing, all of those differences drop away and you’re just two teams playing. The NCAA’s role is to make that competition possible. And every once in a while, the team that comes from the small school that just happens to have the right combination of students and coach are able to win a game over teams that have more resources.
“It’s great theater, but it’s also a great educational experience for our student-athletes.”
And that educational experience is what Campbell-McGovern works hard to provide.