by Thad Mumau | Photography by Diana Matthews
As a star basketball player at Wake Forest University, Fayetteville’s Amy Perko exemplified what a student-athlete should be. Now, a big part of her job is making sure the term student-athlete is properly defined and that it retains credibility.
Perko is the executive director of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. It is an independent group of university presidents, faculty, trustees and former student-athletes who advocate for policy changes that improve safety and academics in college sports.
The commission, which was formed in 1989, has no formal authority within the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association). What it does is make recommendations.
“Many of our recommendations,” Perko says, “have to do with ensuring that athletic programs operate within the educational mission of the universities.”
That has not always been the case, with graduation rates in recent decades plummeting to embarrassing levels for college football and basketball players. One of the problems has been that athletes have often taken courses that keep them academically eligible but do not always move them closer to a degree.
“A number of the policies we have recommended have been adopted,” Perko says. “One adopted in 2011 requires teams be on track to graduate at least 50 percent of their players in order to be eligible for postseason. The academic system in place today requires that athletes show progress toward a degree. There is accountability.”
Amy Privette graduated from Kannapolis High School, and although she was recruited by other colleges, Wake Forest was the place for her. Two older sisters were already there when she entered with partial scholarships for academics and athletics.
She played basketball at Wake and twice earned All-Atlantic Coast Conference honors while setting just about every school record there was (some she still holds). She was a three-time Academic All-America selection and graduated Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude in 1987, while being named the Deacons’ Female Athlete of the Year.
After earning a master’s degree in sports management from the University of Richmond, Perko worked six years with the NCAA and then at the University of Kansas as an associate athletics director. The next stop was the NBA, which made her president of the Fayetteville Patriots, an NBA developmental league team.
She joined the Knight Commission in 2003 and became its executive director two years later. Much of her work is done from her Fayetteville home, where she lives with her husband, Rick, and their daughters, Anna and Kate.
Both girls are involved in sports, and both are encouraged to compete while keeping everything in perspective. Playing to win without having to win. Trying their best without having to be the best.
“Rick and I try to emphasize the lessons to be learned from sports,” Perko says, “and we want them to have fun. We want Kate and Anna to be passionate about their own paths, and we make sure not to push our passion onto them.
“Being a part of a team is important because of the camaraderie, the friendships formed, the common goal of everyone on that team. It’s good to be a tough competitor, and it is good to keep everything in perspective.”
It would be nice if all parents did that, universities and their boosters, too.
“Yes, having priorities that are in the right order is an important part.” Perko says. “We try to steer universities and their athletic programs in that direction. The Knight Commission is emphasizing that more attention be paid to athletes’ health, injuries and academics.”
There are long hours spent in telephone conversations and there is considerable travel to attend meetings, conferences and conventions, and lots and lots of talk in hopes of a few results. But those results can be profound.
“I like what I’m doing,” she says, “because I believe in the role college sports can play. I also believe the Knight Commission has made a positive and significant contribution toward that and toward improving the college experience for athletes.”
The reward, in any endeavor, is progress, and Perko knows progress is being made, in large part because of the Knight Commission.
“We put a goal out there—to improve graduation rates, and this past year, the NCAA had its highest graduation rates ever. College athletics are bringing in large amounts of money, and we are pushing the NCAA to use a good deal of it to improve safety issues being addressed by our recommendations.
“The important thing is that we are making a difference.”