Last week, I had the pleasure of chatting with former Northwestern Athletic Director and current Green Bay Packers President and CEO Mark Murphy. Murphy preceded Jim Phillips from 2003 to 2007 before leaving for Titletown.
During his time at Northwestern, the school won three team and eight individual NCAA championships, along with nine team and 34 individual Big Ten titles. The Wildcats also appeared in two bowl games during his tenure. The upstate New York native also served as athletic director at his alma mater, Colgate, for 11 years before heading to the Midwest.
Now in his twelfth year with the Packers, Murphy has extensive knowledge of both college and professional athletics. We chatted about two big questions at hand right now: what football might look like in the fall, and what responsibility teams and sports have in responding to racial inequality.
And we of course bonded over our Washington, DC ties — Murphy spent eight years in Washington as an All-Pro safety. He won Super Bowl XVII as a player in the nation’s capital and Super Bowl XLV as an executive in Green Bay.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
To start, how has the communication been between Packers’ players and the coaching staff the past few months? What have been the biggest setbacks?
Communication is always important in any organization, but especially when you’re in a situation like this. Our head coach [Matt LaFleur] has really done a nice job staying in touch with the players, and our position coaches are relatively young, and I think a little more technologically savvy than some others across the league, so that’s helped us.
Where is your energy focused right now? What does your day-to-day look like?
I’m on a number of different league committees, and we’ve had a number of league meetings over the last few months. A lot of it is just getting ready for the season. We have a little bit of time on our hands in terms of the more difficult process of whether we play games in the fall, and if so, what are the circumstances.
I think we’re going to be able to learn from the NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball, the decisions they’re making now. We can kind of see what works and what doesn’t work.
Going off that, do you have any idea of what the preseason will look like?
At this point, it’s all been virtual. We’re hoping to get the players back in towards the end of June.
One of the decisions the league just made is teams have to be in their own facilities for training camp, because a lot of teams normally travel to colleges. The league’s protocol is you have to follow certain things, unless there’s a state requirement that would prohibit something.
As a former athletic director, what would be going through your head right now if you were still at Northwestern?
My immediate thought was, ‘I feel so bad for the seniors’ — all of them, but especially the winter sport athletes just about to get into their tournaments and championships, and then particularly the spring sport athletes. You realize how much time and effort they put in and then to have that taken away.
More broadly, you’d start thinking about when can you get back to campus, what kind of things can you do to keep your athletes safe. It’s an unprecedented time for everybody.
How do you think pressure from other conferences might influence the Big Ten’s decision on the 2020 season?
Ideally, there wouldn’t be a conference-by-conference decision. It would be nice to have it either be NCAA or certainly some some group, but I know there are differences conference to conference, so that’s going to be a little more difficult. I just look at our situation. It’s nice when the decisions that involve competitive equity are made by the league rather than individual teams.
How do you think that the decision to return to play changes for student-athletes compared to professionals?
It’s so important to the student-athletes. For our players obviously money is a part of it, but also they love the competition, the camaraderie, being with their friends on the team. What’s different is, our athletes, that’s their job and that’s all they do. At Northwestern and the other Big Ten schools, they’re students and they’re athletes, and what’s gonna be interesting is if you still have sports when students aren’t on campus.
Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips said it wouldn’t be appropriate to play without fans (in that if it wasn’t safe for fans to be there, it likely wouldn’t be safe for the players either). Do you think it’s realistic for college football to operate in empty stadiums?
Yeah, we’re dealing with that issue too. And I guess my view on that is that’s a decision medical experts should make. If there’s a way that we can keep our players safe, whether that’s isolating them in some way, then that’s fine. But that’s really got to be driven by the medical experts, not athletic directors or administrators.
It may also be up to medical experts, but in terms of testing plans, what type of plan do you think would make people comfortable bringing student athletes back to campus?
Well, there’s got to be a tremendous increase in their amount of tests available. From everything I’ve seen, we really need to have more testing available, more frequently. I think that that is what’s gonna make everybody feel more comfortable.
It can be difficult to make college kids follow rules. How do you expect to get student-athletes to follow safety guidelines when they aren’t on the field?
I think that’s their responsibility. First and foremost, they want to be available for for their team and their teammates. I think coaches have such a strong influence on their student athletes, just encouraging them. At least for a while, we have to learn how to coexist with this, and that means wearing a mask when appropriate, staying socially distant and washing your hands on a regular basis.
So, there are things that the individual can do and then things the schools and the teams can do as well. Just walking through our facility here, there’s a hand sanitizer almost every hundred yards. We have masks all over the place. We’re doing everything we can to make it as safe as possible.
A lot of colleges have recently implemented budget cuts, and athletic departments’ spending practices are coming under scrutiny. How would you manage that and think future spending may change?
The pain is going to be spread across the campus. This is a challenging time for everybody in terms of enrollment and economically. You hope that schools don’t drop sports, although I have seen that a number had. During my career as athletic director at Colgate we dropped sports, and that was not an easy thing to do. I would hope that schools can avoid that, but obviously difficult decisions have to be made.
The beauty of Northwestern is that they don’t have a really broad athletic program. Surprisingly, Colgate had a lot more sports than Northwestern despite being a smaller school. There was just a different philosophy with the liberal arts education, and the experience as a student-athlete was part of your overall education. With Northwestern being in the Big Ten, I think it’d be hard since there’s really not a lot of fat to cut. I don’t think that would be something that they would look at.
Brown University briefly cut its men’s track and field team before reinstating it, which warranted criticism as it is one of their more diverse teams. At NU, Phillips released a statement saying it’s clear the department “has often failed” to protect student-athletes from racism. What responsibility do you think college coaches and ADs have to their players to acknowledge and combat racism within their programs?
They are role models and mentors for their student athletes. So I think showing them that people should all be treated equally and not based on the color of their skin, and to not only say the right things but also through their actions.
I don’t know if I would agree with Jim. I don’t think there’s a failure there, from what I’ve seen at Northwestern. At Northwestern, the athletic department brought a lot of diversity to the campus, whereas at Colgate, there were so many teams, and the student-athletes were a really high percentage of the overall student body. Football and basketball in particular were a key part of the university’s overall diversity. It was not only racial diversity, but also socioeconomic diversity. Expensive private schools tend to have a lot of students from wealthy families, and athletics really provided some diversity because of the aid packages that we could give out to certain student-athletes, especially when they were need-based.
How do you think sports can serve as an agent for change on campus?
Absolutely. I’m very proud of athletes in general, especially when they’re willing to speak out on issues. You see a lot of this now, with the George Floyd situation. I know our players here have really become really emotional about it. They want to see change.
We really need to — I don’t want to get waxing too strongly here — but we need to come together as a country. Sports is one of the few things that brings people together. I’ve never seen our country more divided, and it starts with our president. His main aim is to divide us.
I saw the video the Packers released on Twitter. Can you talk about the thought process behind that video and doing that instead of releasing more of a blanket-statement like other teams have done?
Enough is enough.— Green Bay Packers (@packers) June 4, 2020
It's time for change. pic.twitter.com/AS7wP9qz2x
I met with the players Monday, and they were really emotional talking about racial issues, particularly as it relates to police brutality and what happened over Memorial Day Weekend. We had a lot of discussions over the weekend, and we met with our leadership council, which is made up of about 10 players, our captains and our leaders. They were talking about how we want to make a difference and use our position to influence people to make change.
The more we talked, they said they wanted to make a video. I thought it was a great idea, and so it was really the players’ concept. They said, ‘we don’t want to do your typical statement, and we want something that especially younger people across the country can relate to.’ I thought it was pretty powerful.
We wanted to do that first, and then I put out a statement. Then we’re also providing a $250,000 grant to be directed by our players to social justice organizations.
Statement from Green Bay Packers President & CEO Mark Murphy pic.twitter.com/gPyicVzDAG— Green Bay Packers (@packers) June 4, 2020
Do you think that is part of your responsibility, as someone who has a platform during this time, to be making statements and donating?
Yeah, I think so. It’s a combination. Obviously, the players have a much stronger platform than I do, so I thought the video was a really good idea. We encouraged that. This moment in time reminds me a lot of when Colin Kaepernick knelt, and then President Trump came out and said we should fire these “sons of bitches.”
I just think it’s really important for us to be supportive of our players. 70 percent of our players are African-American, and this is really an emotional, important issue to them.