The game video arrived at her North Carolina home the same day Amy Perko returned from Dallas, indirectly completing a loop that propelled her trip to Texas in the first place.
Perko had been engaged in high-level multitasking, resolutely carrying the banner for traditional college-sports values. The struggle for reform, and for perfecting rather than abandoning the amateur intercollegiate model, conjures images of Sisyphus, the mythical Greek king doomed for eternity to roll a huge boulder uphill, only to see it roll back down again.
“There are times that we have felt that way,” concedes Perko, executive director of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, “but there have been enough successes to know that the work can make a difference. In significant ways on the academic side we have made a difference.”
Just last month, the Knight Commission recommended new guidelines for spending NCAA revenues allocated to Division I schools, an amount bloated by a $1 billion per year TV contract for the men’s basketball tournament. Consistent with its historical focus, the commission advocated that all NCAA monies from the tournament go toward supporting college athletes’ scholastic interests and personal welfare, a departure from the current 25 percent distribution guideline. The independent advisory group also urged a change in revenue distribution to promote academic as well as athletic achievement by schools participating in the tournament.
“Those revenues should be used by institutions to directly support the education and medical care of college athletes – not for coaching salaries, recruiting, and building more athletics facilities,” declared Arne Duncan, the commission’s co-vice chair and former Secretary of Education in the Obama administration.
Duncan’s litany of distorted spending could include pay for athletic directors, whose national convention Perko attended in Dallas. According to a 2013 report in USA Today, the most recent compilation available, the average annual compensation for ACC athletic directors at current member institutions (minus Boston College and Miami, private schools that didn’t share data) was $706,000. Four ACC ADs were among the 16 highest-paid in Division I. Several got raises more recently, including North Carolina’s Bubba Cunningham and N.C. State’s Debbie Yow.
Perko also moderated a panel at the convention of college sports information directors (CoSIDA) located in the same Dallas hotel as the ADs. She had been inducted into that organization’s Academic All-America Hall of Fame in 2008, after earning Academic All-America honors three times as a basketball standout at Wake Forest.
Upon returning to the Fayetteville home she shares with husband, Rick Perko, and daughters Anna and Kate, Perko found a disk from Joe Sanchez. These days Sanchez is a men’s assistant coach at Warner University, an NAIA school in Lake Wales, Fla. Sanchez was at Wake from the 1985-86 through the 1991-92 seasons, compiling a 109-93 record.
During his first two years, Perko, then known as Amy Privette, “was the backbone to those ballclubs,” Sanchez says. She led the Demon Deacons in scoring, steals and assists and was twice voted second team All-ACC. “Mostly she was a quiet leader by example,” Sanchez recalls. “But she was so respected by her teammates.”
The converted VCR tape sent by Sanchez showed Perko hitting the game-winning shot against Duke in the 1986 ACC tournament, Wake’s only victory in the event’s first decade. She was guarded at the time by Katie Meier, now head coach at Miami.
“It’s a moment I practiced on my driveway goal hundreds of times,” Perko, a Kannapolis native, says of her shot from near the free throw line. She grew up admiring Wake guard Skip Brown – a fellow member of the school’s Hall of Fame – and often imagined playing alongside him. “He didn’t actually realize how many games we played together in my driveway,” she says, chuckling.
Almost as memorable as the exhilaration of lifting her team to victory was a comment by Duke’s Debbie Leonard – “Congratulations, that’s a moment you’ll remember your entire life” – as they passed in the media room. “And I thought, wow, that’s really classy for the opposing coach to come over and congratulate me in her moment of disappointment,” Perko says. “That was just another example of what you learn in sports – sportsmanship and handling disappointment as well as handling success.”
That perspective served Perko well in a career that included six years of administrative work at NCAA headquarters; overseeing seven sports as associate athletic director and serving as senior woman administrator at the University of Kansas; the first president of the Fayetteville Patriots, an NBA developmental league team; and since 2005 as executive director of the Knight Commission.
According to its website, the privately funded foundation was started in 1989 under circumstances that echo contemporary conditions: “in response to more than a decade of highly visible scandals in college sports.” Lending gravitas to the new organization, its founding co-chairs were UNC’s William Friday and Notre Dame’s Reverend Theodore Hesburgh. The current chair is William Kerwan, chancellor emeritus of the University System of Maryland. Among the newest members of the Knight Commission board are recently graduated athletes, as well as Duncan and Paul Tagliabue, the former NFL commissioner.
The commission meets twice annually to “provide a platform for public dialogue about the most pressing issues facing college sports,” Perko says. Its website shares detailed reports on athletic finances, the focus of the next commission meeting in October. Currently featured is an article from the International Business Times that, based on Knight Commission data from 2009 through 2013, chronicles massive increases in expenditures on football and athletic facilities even as tuition and student fees skyrocket to pay the bills and academic spending remains almost stagnant. “The payoff for all that investment? Nearly three quarters of all Division I football programs now run deficits,” conclude writers David Sirota and Andrew Perez.
“The big elephant in the room now with reform, particularly around the financial issues, is that the NCAA really does not control football,” Perko says. “The fact there’s now this football championship that generates nearly as much money as the basketball tournament distributes back to Division I schools is a very new reality, and all that money sits outside the NCAA management process.”
The NCAA faces other significant new realities, including internal challenges to its rules by elite conferences and lawsuits seeking direct compensation for athletes. Within that increasingly unsettled landscape, the Knight Commission has steadfastly championed an old-fashioned approach – supporting a range of enhanced financial and health benefits for players, promoting toughened eligibility standards based on athletes’ progress toward a degree, and banning teams from postseason play that fail to meet certain academic standards.
Advocating new ways to configure what Perko calls the “college athletic experience” is not on the agenda.
“I think it’s fair to say that the Knight Commission wants to preserve the college sports model that fundamentally ties financial benefits that institutions provide to athletes, to the cost of education and the cost of attendance,” Perko says. “And the Knight Commission does not want to see college sports transformed into a system where these are semi-pro teams with employee-students participating.”
Whether that philosophy is a flawed vestige of another era is an open question, ripe for some other distinguished group of thinkers to dispassionately dissect and debate.