Q&A with WCC Commissioner Gloria Nevarez
Gloria Nevarez, WCC commissioner, is one of nine female conference commissioners in NCAA Division I athletics – and the first Latin American to ascend to this role. She discussed her career path and the future of college sports with Associate Dean Agnieszka McPeak, who directs Gonzaga Law’s Center for Law, Ethics, and Commerce. This interview has been edited for clarity and space.
How would you describe your career path, and how did you get to where you are?
Commissioner Nevarez: My career path was kind of a straight line from undergrad through law school. I was working in a big firm in San Francisco and then I just took a hard left, quit the job, took a 50% pay cut and went into college sports.
What was your first college sports role?
Commissioner Nevarez: San Jose State University. I was the first full-time compliance person; at that time compliance in college athletics was a new field. Fresh out of law school, I had to build the compliance program. Then I went to UC Berkeley to work in its compliance office.
What does it mean to be WCC commissioner?
Commissioner Nevarez: As CEO of the league office at the core of a collegiate conference, my office consolidates media rights, negotiates the contracts for our ESPN, CBS Sports Network and Stadium agreements, schedules league contests through the WCC championships and hosts our conference championship events. Along with that, we assign the officials to make sure participants follow the rules. We have side programming for student-athlete welfare, but really at the core, it’s about media rights, scheduling, and championships.
What is the most challenging aspect of your job?
Commissioner Nevarez: Commissioners have very little legitimate authority. When it comes to cases of misconduct, I have some authority in the handbooks to penalize, but most everything is by consensus of the board, which is the presidents of our 10 schools.
What innovations are you working on as WCC commissioner, and what makes you most proud?
Commissioner Nevarez: I would say I’m most proud of the way our league came together and adopted the Russell Rule (named for WCC basketball great Bill Russell) requiring the conference office and our membership to include a member of an underrepresented community in the pool of final candidates for every athletic director, senior administrator, head coach, and full-time assistant coach position. It’s the first conference-wide hiring commitment by a league to encourage diversification of our athletic department administration and coaches. We just finished our first year under the Russell Rule, and our results show a member of an underrepresented community in the final candidate pool was hired in more than 50% of searches.
How important has your law degree and your legal experience been for your role as commissioner?
Commissioner Nevarez: When I took that hard left turn out of a traditional law practice into sport, I really had anxiety over the debt incurred for this degree and thought I’d never use it. Honestly, I’ve used it every day. It allowed me to get a job, probably at a higher level of both responsibility and pay. There was a lot of synergy that I wouldn’t ordinarily have without law training. I use it for being persuasive, building consensus, making the case, telling the story to lead the group to a decision, and then negotiating the contracts.
How have you navigated some of the challenges that women face in sport, particularly women in leadership roles like yourself?
Commissioner Nevarez: I always get this question, and it’s really difficult to answer because I have never not been in sport. Having played sports, you have a little bit more comfort in the athletic environment. When I started, there were very few women. It’s really cool today to see how many women are at this level – we have nine Division I female commissioners and several athletic directors. There’s certainly not parity but I do think there’s a network and so much more programming to help connect us with the young people coming up. Mentoring has always been really important to me.
What advice do you have for students who might be interested in sports law?
Commissioner Nevarez: If you love sports, it’s rewarding – even on my worst day when people are killing us over a bad officiating call or something. I love the college sports space because you get young people in that time in their lives when they’re figuring out their path. They’re not pros, but they’re not recreational youth; they’re nationally competitive. We’re kind of in that sweet spot.
In June 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court held in the Alston case that the NCAA cannot limit education-related payments to student-athletes, a ruling that has had a huge impact on the NCAA’s rules relating to name, image, and likeness (NIL) rights in college athletics. How have the new NIL rules impacted your conference, and how are you pivoting to adjust to these developments?
Commissioner Nevarez: I’m in favor of allowing student- athletes to monetize their name, image, and likeness. I think we’ve been slow to change those rules. We’re turning a big ship; we don’t seem to do things very quickly or efficiently. However, it’s been difficult cracking open new NIL rules with only two guardrails – one, you can’t pay to play; and two, schools can’t be involved in brokering the deal. These have not provided enough structure. Both institutions and student- athletes are at risk. I think schools could help at least to guide student-athletes without overly restricting their ability to monetize. So I do think that we need some regulation.
Here at Gonzaga, we clearly feel we’ve built something special over the years in our basketball program. What do you think is the key to success for a school like ours?
Commissioner Nevarez: I first worked at the WCC during the Adam Morrison and Dan Dickau years. What I love about Gonzaga is that you have built this thing over two decades – you know, this hasn’t been a flash in the pan. I think it’s the consistency of culture from the top – the president, athletic director, coach, the kind of student-athletes you recruit – there’s so much stability. I think Gonzaga probably has the most double-digit year employees in the athletic department because of the culture and what it means to be a Zag. I think that’s been the special sauce here.