Lessons in the business of college sports

The son of a lifelong educator, Derrick Gragg is determined to stay connected to the classroom while serving as Northwestern’s Combe Family Vice President for Athletics & Recreation.

“I’ve always wanted to be fully integrated into campus life,” said Gragg. “I’ve been a lecturer at various institutions for almost 18 years and it’s just a part of me. I enjoy it because one of the things about a position like this is that as you move up the ranks in an organisation, you can get further and further away from the students.”

Almost a year has passed since then Northwestern announced Gragg’s appointment as Director of Wildcats Athletics and Recreation. A former Football Letter winner at Vanderbilt University, Gragg says he’s always valued the influence of academics on athletes. He earned a master’s degree in sports administration from Wayne State University and a doctorate in university administration from the University of Arkansas.

His own experience as a student gives him an advantage now that he is at the top of the class.

This spring, Gragg is teaching an elective course at Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences called The Business of College Sport. The class is part of the minor in business institutions offered by the Harvey Kapnick Center for Economic Institutions and open to all students, regardless of their major or school.

Gragg says he feels particularly connected to this course because he took it himself while pursuing his master’s degree. When the instructor retired, Wayne State administrators asked him to teach it. Since then he has taught about a dozen different courses over the last 20 years.

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Either I was involved in a similar experience, or I can talk about it because I was in the room.”

Combe Family Vice President of Athletics and Recreation

The class provides an overview of the main issues related to intercollegiate management. And for three hours each week, there’s plenty to talk about, including integrity and institutional control; student athletes as employees; Name, Image and Likeness Laws and Policies; social justice awareness in relation to racial justice and opportunity; and transgender athletic students.

Gragg has made weekly classes a team effort, inviting several Northwest athletics and recreational employees — from marketing to fundraising — to share expertise about their various roles supporting the success of the Wildcats sport.

From his point of view, every point in the curriculum reads almost like a story of his sporting life.

“Either I was involved in a similar experience, or I can talk about it because I was in the room,” he said. “I’ve seen collegiate athletics evolve in many ways.”

While serving as director of athletics at the University of Tulsa, Gragg helped introduce the Tulsa legacy game, created to pay tribute to the survivors and descendants of the 1921 Tulsa Massacre, one of the worst incidents of racial violence in US history. The first football game was in 2020 when Tulsa hosted East Carolina University.

Shortly before arriving at Northwestern, Gragg was the NCAA’s senior vice president of inclusion, education and community engagement. He says this background also benefits his students because diversity and inclusion issues are so important to the future of college sports.

Gragg says he hopes by the end of the quarter the students will have a better understanding of the inner workings of college athletics and how the business works. He reminds students that success in this or any business does not come overnight and emphasizes the need to pay your dues, do your research, and always make decisions with integrity.

“I feel compelled to share this with the younger generation,” he said. “I think the best administrators are the ones who really understand why we’re in business. We make decisions based on what is best for the student athlete.”

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