Duke’s Nina King is comfortable as a trailblazer at one of the country’s iconic programs — The Undefeated

In May, Duke announced it had promoted Nina King to vice president and athletic director, making her the first woman to hold the AD position at Duke and only the third Black woman to do so at a Power 5 school. (There are now seven female ADs in the Power 5 after Missouri hired Desiree Reed-Francois in August.) A Florida native and Notre Dame graduate, King, who is 43, replaced Kevin White, whom she worked for at both Notre Dame and Duke.

“The future is bright for our department because I know we have the right person to represent us in every way,” Duke women’s basketball coach and Olympic gold medalist Kara Lawson said of King’s promotion. “One of the main reasons I chose to come to Duke was because of the diversity that exists at every level.”

The Undefeated spoke with King recently about her new position, the changing sports landscape and the ever-perplexing former Duke basketball star Kyrie Irving. The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Growing up in Tampa, did you play a lot of sports? Were you a sports fan?

I did not play sports growing up. I was a dancer. I did ballet, tap, jazz and I was on the high school dance team. So, no organized sports growing up. We used to go to [Tampa Bay] Bucs games. But my passion for sports really began in college.

You attended Notre Dame, where you managed the swimming and diving program. From the outside, looking at your résumé, it seems like the perfect trajectory for getting to where you are now. Tulane Law School. Stints at Nike, the NCAA and Notre Dame. Did you know you wanted to go into sports administration as an undergrad?

When I was in middle school and high school, I wanted to become a lawyer. I got to Notre Dame. It’s such a sporty place. Everyone plays sports, maybe not varsity, but club and intramural. When I heard about this student-manager organization, it was something that piqued my interest. They had a great program there, inviting all freshmen to come out and participate as a manager. You could help work a swim meet or stuff mailers in the soccer office, wherever a team might need help. I went through that program, worked with the football team my junior year, and then was the student head manager of women’s swimming and diving my senior year. I was an ops [people operations] person, working with the administration, turning in expense reports and travel rosters. I thought the administrative jobs were interesting.

I was an accounting major, and there was an internship in the business office of athletics, and that’s what I did after I graduated. It was around when Kevin White became athletic director, and that’s when I met him and worked in his office for six months. Then I went to the NCAA and did their finance internship and then onto law school. During my summers, I worked at Nike so I could have a different experience than just college athletics. And while it was great, it was too big and too corporate for me, and I realized I didn’t want to work in corporate sports. A job opened at Notre Dame, and I went back for three years. Then Kevin took the AD job at Duke, and I came with him.

When your promotion to athletic director was announced, you told a Tampa news program: ‘I hope that little girls and boys who look like me can aspire big, dream big and realize their dreams at some point in their careers. Representation matters. They need to see that folks that look like them lead the department.

I’m wondering during your career if there were people who played this role for you in terms of mentors, role models or inspirations.

I would say [athletic director] Sandy Barbour at Penn State has been one of those people. And [athletic director] Bernard Muir at Stanford. Our paths crossed at Notre Dame, and I was able to work with both of them, and I was able to watch their career paths and lean on them a lot as I grew up in this business. A lot of Kevin White’s tree. It all traces back to Kevin White.

Obviously, we’re still in the midst of the COVID pandemic. Duke, a private university, has been able to mandate vaccines and is in a better health situation than many universities. I imagine this year is much better than the last academic year. But are things more or less back to normal? What are the main COVID-related challenges you continue to face?

We’re back to almost normal. In terms of our seasons, it’s normal. Last year, we had our fall sports competing in the spring. We had shortened seasons. We eliminated a lot of nonconference play. So relative to our traditional seasons, that’s back. And we also have fans. Last year, we had no fans. Not even parents. Having the fan experience back is great.

And there were just so many protocols last year. Students on campus were living one to a room. When we traveled, we only flew charter or bus, so there was no commercial travel. Our student-athletes would stay one to a hotel room. Last year was very isolating for a lot of students on campus. So we’re getting back to living together, eating together — even though it’s outside. There are still protocols, including a mask mandate indoors and outside, but we’re learning to live with COVID.

Could you briefly explain what exactly your job is on a day-to-day basis? Of course, I know there’s a lot that you oversee. But how much of your time, say, is spent fundraising, negotiating sponsorship and television contracts, and interacting with coaches? Do you have time to watch games?

It’s all those things. Fundraising is a big part of it. A lot of it is engagement with student-athletes and staff. It’s going to volleyball matches. But not just games. I was just walking to my office from another building. And I realized I hadn’t been around field hockey lately. I need to go to a field hockey practice. The student-athletes notice when administrators are there or not. It’s really important to me to be visible and engaged.

I’m also a vice president. So I sit at the president’s leadership table and am involved with my colleagues around campus. I have various speaking engagements. The requests are coming in fast and furious this first year. And then there are fundraising trips, lots of chicken dinners. And traveling with our teams. It’s a whirlwind. No day looks the same. We have 350 employees that I need to stay connected with.

In a recent interview with a Tulane law student, you spoke about your legal background and start in compliance and human resources. I’m curious how you think the new name, image and likeness (NIL) rule has changed the athletic landscape. I’m not sure how many Duke athletes currently have endorsements. But at least one, freshman basketball player Paolo Banchero, recently inked two prominent deals. What challenges and opportunities does this new rule present for Duke athletics?

NIL is interesting. Leading up to it, everyone thought the sky was going to fall when July 1 came and the rule took effect. I’ve said numerous times publicly that I’m in favor of NIL and the opportunities it provides our student-athletes. We’ve seen a lot of activity, though we’re not publicizing the deals. And not just for the high-profile Paolos of the world. Rowers, fencers, a lot of our Olympic-sport athletes are getting opportunities. It’s not huge dollars, but it’s giving them an opportunity to learn how to build a brand and market themselves.

Now we’re focused on the Alston Supreme Court case and what that means for us on campus. [In NCAA v. Alston, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in June that college restrictions on athlete noncash compensation, such as laptops or internships, violated antitrust law.] Now that we can provide these educational-related benefits to our student-athletes, figuring out how we’re going to do that here at Duke is a huge challenge. For instance, how do federal financial aid regulations come into play? Are students on Pell Grants affected or not?

And everyone saw the recent National Labor Relations Board [NLRB] memo on unionization. [In September, NLRB general counsel Jennifer Abruzzo wrote that ‘student-athletes’ qualify as employees under the National Labor Relations Act and ‘have the right to act collectively to improve their terms and conditions of employment.’] What does that mean and what does that potentially mean coming down the pike? The job doesn’t require a legal degree, but it’s certainly helpful.

Duke is known for its men’s basketball program. Not so much football. A decade ago, I asked Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick, as the school suffered through a few mediocre seasons, whether academically selective private schools could still compete with major public universities on the football field. He was adamant they could, and in fact the following season Notre Dame made it to the championship game. But I’m curious, especially since you worked at Notre Dame, whether you think Duke can or should aspire to be a top-10 football program, competing with the likes of Clemson, Alabama and Ohio State.

One hundred percent yes. We’ve seen Notre Dame, obviously. But we’ve also seen Northwestern and Stanford succeed. It can be done. I understand where we are in our season and where the program is right now. [At the time of our interview, Duke was 3-4 and 0-3 in conference games.] We’re working on identifying how we get there, to be the top of the ACC and a great program in the country.

Sure, we have our challenges, but everyone has challenges. A lot of it is financial for us. We’re paying $80,000 per scholarship per year here. You look at state schools and it’s maybe a fourth of that. It’s expensive here. We know what our challenges are, we know we need to get better, and we will.

In an interview with the Associated Press, you said: ‘Listen, we need to get better. Six female ADs in the Power 5? I mean, three Black females? We need to do better. And I’m happy to kind of be the next step toward progress and I’m committed to helping ensure that more females, more people of color, have opportunities like I do.

During your tenure, how do you see that manifesting itself at Duke? For instance, the most prominent recent promotion, aside from your own, was the announcement that Jon Scheyer would replace coach Mike Krzyzewski as men’s basketball coach. Meanwhile, rival UNC hired Hubert Davis. NC State basketball has Kevin Keatts, another African American. And before Scheyer was hired, there was speculation that Jeff Capel, who recently took the job at Pittsburgh, Tommy Amaker or Johnny Dawkins might land the job.

From my count of Duke’s head coaches across all sports, there are 13 white, male coaches; one Black male coach, five white female coaches and two Black female coaches. And there are several male coaches coaching female teams.

Now, I’m not impugning any of the coaches or advocating some quota system. But I am curious, when it comes to hiring coaches in the future, how much issues regarding diversity will play into your thinking.

Diversity is a critical priority here. It’s nonnegotiable. We haven’t formally implemented any hiring quotas or rules, but our staff knows that it’s a priority of mine to ensure that we have diverse candidate pools for every single position — from interns to senior leaders, assistant coaches and head coaches. That also requires having diverse hiring and search committees.

It’s not just a numbers game, but it’s also about opportunities. Our student-athlete population is X% of color, and our staff population needs to mirror that or exceed that. Representation matters. I am no different in embracing this than Kevin, so it’s not a massive shift with me coming in as the AD. We’ve been living under that priority for many years.

Finally, a hypothetical: For Coach K’s last home game, arguably the best player to wear a Duke men’s basketball uniform, Kyrie Irving, wants to come for the game and join in the accompanying festivities. He’s famously unvaccinated. What do you tell him?

We’re requiring vaccination or proof of a negative test within 72 hours of game time. So come on, bring your negative test.

Paul Wachter has written for The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, and The Atlantic. He lives in Visalia, California.

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