Growing up in Rochester, Minnesota, Gary Roberts had no idea his passion for sports and education would lead him toward the heart of Illinois. But upon graduating from Bradley University in 1970, Roberts had developed an impressive list of accomplishments and titles in his back pocket: college bowl champion, student body treasurer and magna cum laude graduate, to name a few. After attending law school at Stanford and spending nearly three decades as both a well-known sports lawyer and dedicated educator, Roberts found himself pulled back to his undergraduate alma mater when an opening for the school’s presidency emerged. Now back in Peoria to fulfill his duties as president of Bradley University, Roberts sat down with iBi to reflect on his education and career, discussing how his new role is a fitting pinnacle of a busy and rewarding professional life.
Describe your educational background. How did you end up at Bradley?
I came to Bradley sight unseen because I had a cousin who was Jostens Jewelry Company’s sales rep for central Illinois, selling class rings and yearbooks. He told me Bradley was a nice school with a good basketball team. It was the right size, just far enough away from home, and had a strong debate program. So I came—we didn’t travel the country touring campuses back in those days like they do today. The first time I saw Bradley or Peoria was when I showed up for orientation.
What activities or events impacted you most as a student?
I was very active on campus, and all of the experiences broadened my perspectives and my skillset. I was on the first-team of the debate team for all four years, and I was active in student government: sophomore class president, student body treasurer, and then on the student supreme court after losing the election for student body president to Jim Gitz, who is now mayor of Freeport, Illinois. I was a charter member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity and its president my junior year, and perhaps most famously, I was one of the four members of Bradley’s 1969 GE College Bowl team that won all five weeks on national television (NBC). All of these were fun and great learning experiences.
But those were interesting years, too. Events beyond Bradley also shaped me. The Vietnam War was raging. There were lots of antiwar protests all around the country—the Kent State massacre occurred during my senior year, although the protests at Bradley were fairly tame. I was very much against the war, but I was not part of the anti-war movement because it was also very anti-military, and I was never anti-military, believing that we needed a strong military and that it was only doing what it was ordered to do in Vietnam. The civil rights movement was also in full swing. After the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed, I helped with voter registration efforts here in Peoria by walking the south side and registering new voters. So these were years of political unrest that touched me and helped shape my worldview.
Describe your early career path. How did you come to focus on sports law?
It was purely by accident. When I graduated from Stanford Law School, I clerked for a judge on the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco for a year. Then I went to work for Covington & Burling—then the largest law firm in Washington, DC—which happened to be outside general counsel for the NFL, and also represented the NHL and other sports clients. Early on, I was assigned by the luck of the draw to work on the team doing NFL work, and that became my principal client for the seven-plus years I was at the firm.
I also did some work for the NHL and World Championship Tennis, which was created by Lamar Hunt, who also owned the Kansas City Chiefs. So when I finally pursued my ultimate goal of becoming a law professor by joining the faculty at Tulane Law School in New Orleans, the dean at the time, Paul Verkuil, told me that with my background, I should develop a program and courses in sports law—a subject that back then was unheard of. I told him that sounded like fun, but asked, “What is sports law?” His response still echoes in my head: “I don’t know, but I bet it will be popular.”
So I threw myself into developing courses in both professional and amateur sports law, put together teaching materials that later morphed into an 1,100-page textbook, started the first sports law certificate program in the U.S., edited a sports law newsletter, and joined the fledgling Sports Lawyers Association, where I became president and have served on its board of directors since 1986. Today, sports law is taught in more than 100 law schools, the Sports Lawyers Association has over 1,500 members, and the field has become highly visible and very lucrative.
Describe some of your early cases involving the National Football League.
I worked on literally dozens of cases—too many to try to detail. The one that consumed more time and energy than any other involved the Oakland Raiders’ proposed relocation to the Los Angeles Coliseum. The NFL owners and Commissioner Pete Rozelle blocked the move, and both the L.A. Coliseum and the Raiders sued the League for antitrust violations. The case took several years, and I spent two three-month periods living in a hotel in Los Angeles while the case was tried twice (the first time ending in a hung jury).
The stories I could tell about the humorous and bizarre things that happened around that case could consume volumes. In the end, after a very biased jury and some judicial misconduct by Los Angeles judges led to a verdict enabling the Raiders to move to Los Angeles (which they left about a decade later to return to Oakland), my partner Paul Tagliabue went on to become commissioner of the NFL, and I became a schoolteacher. Hmmm?
What other significant, sports-related cases have you been involved with?
I was at Tulane only a few months when a major point-shaving scandal led to the Tulane president asking me to get involved overseeing the Athletic Department, which began my long involvement in college athletics, including active involvement as a faculty athletics representative at two different universities and in various capacities with three different college conferences and the NCAA. Then—as a result of a controversial speech I gave at a conference in Monte Carlo, Monaco in 1991—I got heavily involved in the Olympic movement and international sports, which ultimately led to my being appointed a judge-arbitrator on the Court of Arbitration for Sport, headquartered in Lausanne, Switzerland. When I moved to Indianapolis (the self-described auto racing capital of the world) to be the dean of the Indiana University Law School, I became immersed in and familiar with many legal aspects of the motorsports industry. So I have been involved in a wide variety of ways in many different aspects of sports and the sports industry, which has been great fun. As I tell people, it beat working!
Tell us more about your time at Tulane, including your work in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Katrina hit New Orleans in late August 2005. When the floodwalls broke and left 90 percent of the city under several feet of water, Tulane (like the entire area) shut down. Our students scattered, many enrolling in other universities for the fall semester, many just electing to sit out that period. Tulane’s president, Scott Cowen, did a historically brilliant and heroic job saving Tulane—and much of New Orleans as well. He set up an administration in exile in Houston, within days got a half-billion dollar line of credit from Deutsche Bank, and immediately hired a large company to head for New Orleans to rehabilitate the campus.
I was deputy dean of the Law School, but when the dean, Larry Ponoroff, was co-opted by the university to be in charge of finding housing for our students, faculty and staff when we returned in January, I got what I call a “battlefield promotion” to fill the dean’s role and try to find our faculty and students, make arrangements for their return for the spring semester, and put together a multifaceted curriculum that would meet the needs of all our returning students, no matter what they had done that semester in exile. It was a stressful, hectic, but exciting and satisfying time. I learned some great lessons, most notably that when civilization comes to an end, rules meant for normal times go out the window and you do what you have to do to survive and ask for forgiveness later. It was an experience that has played a big role in shaping my leadership style and philosophy today.
What led to your becoming a commentator for the NFL? How was that experience?
This is no big deal. The NFL Network, which was a fledgling operation in 2011, called and asked if I would be available to comment regularly as things unfolded during the off-season lockout of the players in spring 2011. I said sure, why not? It was fun but not terribly heady. I have been on television and radio, spoken at major conferences and before public and legislative audiences so many times over the years, I cannot begin to count them. So this was just another short-lived experience, not very different from the rest.
Describe your leadership style and core values.
Quite simply, I believe in hiring great people to oversee the various departments and operations of an organization, and then let them do their jobs. I am available to support the folks who are there to lead their departments and to advise and consult with them. I also have to monitor things to make sure these subordinates are in fact doing a good job, and to make sure they are working well together. If things are working smoothly as they should, I am pretty laidback and hands-off. But if and when dysfunction occurs, I am willing to step in and make sure it is corrected, and if it is not, to get people in place who will fix things.
As a footnote, I am absolutely delighted with the team of people we have in place at Bradley. Every member of our top leadership team is a consummate professional who knows his/her area of responsibility, carries out his/her job with dedication and high competence, and is focused on making Bradley the best it can be, without regard to turf or resume building. Likewise, we have an extremely dedicated and talented faculty that is focused on the students and giving them the kind of personal attention that is the hallmark of a Bradley education. All of these folks make my job easy, and they make me extremely optimistic about Bradley’s future.
What are your top priorities for Bradley in the coming school year?
My top priorities include getting construction of our new Convergence Center building underway by next summer, reviewing and retooling our academic programs to make sure they are relevant, improving our financial position so we will be on solid long-term footing, and starting to bring faculty salaries to more appropriate levels.
This year marks the 200th birthday of Bradley’s founder, Lydia Moss Bradley. Describe the celebratory plans for the semester ahead.
The major celebration of Mrs. Bradley’s 200th birthday will take place around our Founder’s Day and Homecoming celebrations. In addition to the usual convocations, luncheons and sporting events, we will dedicate a new Circle of Pride in the quad just west of the Hayden-Clark Alumni Center and unveil a new, life-sized portrait of a more youthful Mrs. Bradley than we usually see. She was truly a giant of a woman in so many ways—if not in height—who deserves great recognition and our undying gratitude. We believe that Bradley is the only major university in the U.S. entirely established and endowed by a woman, and everyone who is part of the Bradley family should be aware and very proud of her legacy.
What is your vision for Bradley University over the next five to 10 years?
Bradley needs to maintain its core mission of providing a first-class residential undergraduate educational experience to highly talented young men and women, while also providing other excellent programs and degrees to graduate, nontraditional and distant, technology-assisted students. In the process of maintaining its core mission, Bradley must adapt to a rapidly changing educational and societal environment to make certain that its educational programs always remain excellent, relevant and affordable.
What message do you have for the Peoria community?
This is a marvelous community, and Bradley is happy and proud to be one of its leading institutional citizens. Everyone who lives in and around Peoria should be keenly aware of the fact that Bradley needs to be a model citizen that does whatever it can to make this community a great place to live and work. On the flip side, while Bradley is critically important to Peoria, Peoria is critically important to Bradley. So just as Bradley must do everything it can to support the community, the community should and must do everything it can to support Bradley.
Tell more about your family, and what you like to do in your spare time.
What spare time? As everyone knows, Donna and I have four “fur children” that have become somewhat famous as the “Bradley Bunch.” So they take a fair amount of our time and energy. Beyond that, I enjoy playing golf, and Donna and I very much enjoy watching old classic movies (and have twice been on the Turner Classic Movie Channel Cruise), traveling to new places and experiencing new things.
My family is pretty small. Except for Donna, I have one 30-year old son, Andrew, who lives in the New York City area and does public relations work and event planning for professional athletes, primarily boxers and boxing agency firms. For the past three years, Andrew’s primary client has been Floyd Mayweather, although Floyd has said he is now retired (but we’ll have to wait and see about that). iBi