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Christina Roybal

How an aspiring doctor became NKU's athletic director

When Christina Roybal was announced as the new vice president and director of athletics at Northern Kentucky University in May 2022, the significance of the time of her hiring was not lost on the first Latina woman Division I athletics director of NKU’s history. 

“I feel incredibly blessed to have been announced as the new athletics director at Northern Kentucky University on the 50th anniversary of Title IX,” Roybal says. “It’s very symbolic to me.” 

Title IX is a civil rights law passed in 1972 to ban discrimination against someone on the basis of sex in schools and institutions that receive funding from the federal government. While the law has opened doors for women that were previously closed, Roybal thinks more progress can be made.

Designations like the “senior woman administrator” are a step in the right direction, but Roybal says the pathways to the AD chair need to open a little bit more. 

“For a while there, it was, ‘If you work in development, you were on the path to be an AD,’” Roybal says. “Those might not have been the jobs many women were working in. I think it’s important for us to find real opportunities for growth for women who want to move into leadership and AD roles.” 

The path to the AD chair was not clear-cut for Roybal. She was raised in a family that did not emphasize sports, calling them recreational in nature. 

“You couldn’t be injured because if you were injured, you couldn’t help out the family,” Roybal says. 

Now that she has children of her own and has worked in college athletics for more than a decade, she sees the value of participating in sports. Her son, Bailey, is a Division I college wrestler at South Dakota State University. 

Roybal went to Saint Mary’s College of California with the intention of becoming a doctor, majoring in biochemistry. As a first-generation college student, however, she needed to find an on-campus job. On her first day of her freshman year, she walked into the athletics department and was hired on as a student-worker. After two years of working in the athletics department, Roybal realized the organic chemistry lab was no longer for her. She found her passion in marketing sports, fan engagement and playing a part in her peers’ success on the court and field. She changed her major and her life’s trajectory. Telling her family, though, was not easy. 

“My family did not understand that,” Roybal says. “There was a lot of confusion on how you make sports a career. But of course, there was a lot of confusion when no one had ever made sports a point of emphasis for our family. I think athletics found me. I definitely consider it my vocation.” 

Going into college athletics was not easy for Roybal. Adversity and challenges are common with any job but are especially magnified in a male-dominated profession like intercollegiate athletics. As of the 2020-21 academic year, only 14 percent of athletics directors at the NCAA Division I level were women, though women comprise nearly half of all college athletes. 

In the Horizon League, Roybal is one of three women athletics directors, joining the heads of the athletic departments at Purdue-Fort Wayne and Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The commissioner of the Horizon League, Julie Roe Lach, is also a woman. 

Roybal says her biggest challenge breaking into college athletics was finding her voice. 

"Success, to me, is when all our programs have opportunities to compete at the top of the league. That’s hard to do. But I want there to be this drive, that striving for the top of the conference and to win championships.”

“I was great on the phones, I was doing great in sales,” Roybal recalls. “But as someone contributing my ideas at a table that was predominantly men, was I very vocal? Probably not.” 

Now, Roybal uses her early experience to mentor other young women. When she’s asked what her biggest piece of advice is for young women early in their college athletics career, her answer is simple. 

“Start speaking up sooner rather than later, because you need to get comfortable with the fact that it might feel uncomfortable at first, but it will get easier.” 

Finding her voice took time and practice, which included figuring out a way to speak up and be truly listened to. Roybal says she didn’t want people to think she was “emotional.” 

“That’s the hard part. I still think in many cases, women are somewhat in a box in which to voice opinions,” Roybal says. “You can’t come across too aggressive; you can’t be too meek. And you have to find the right balance in the middle. I’m not always sure men need to do that.” 

To help her find her voice, Roybal said she needed time and mentorship. She needed someone to push her and tell her to speak up. That’s when Fresno State came calling for Roybal to begin her professional career. While at Fresno State, first as group sales coordinator before moving up the ranks, she met Betsy Mosher, Fresno State’s senior woman administrator. Roybal credits Mosher with teaching her the ropes of Title IX, being a senior woman administrator, and other critical athletics department functions. 

“She took me under her wing and said, ‘I want to teach you everything there is to know about Title IX, and I need someone to know this before I retire,’” Roybal recalls. 

Roybal took Mosher’s teachings to heart. She rose through the ranks to become interim senior woman administrator at Fresno State in 2015 before moving on to become the senior associate athletics director for sports administration at the University of Northern Iowa, as well as deputy Title IX coordinator and senior woman administrator.

So, what is a senior woman administrator (SWA)?

“The senior woman administrator is a designation, it’s not a position in itself. That is often your highest-ranking woman in your athletics department,” Roybal explains. “The reason for the SWA designation was to make sure women were at the table. That women were a part of the decision making. Not just about gender equity, but meaningful contribution to the overall decision-making process of the athletics department.”

Debbie Kirch holds that critical designation at NKU, serving as the senior associate athletics director for compliance and student services.

In addition to holding the SWA designation at Northern Iowa, Roybal also oversaw 14 athletics programs. It was during this time that she realized that becoming an athletics director might be next. 

Her desire to help close the gender equity gap in college athletics is evident by her involvement in national organizations aimed at achieving that mission. Roybal is an active member of National Association of College Directors of Athletics (NACDA) and Women Leaders in College Sports (Women Leaders). She is a graduate of Women Leaders’ Institute for Administrative Advancement and Leadership Enhancement Institute. When NKU appeared on her radar, Roybal fell in love with the institution, calling it a “very unique space” matching her values, particularly the Success by Design strategic framework. As a first-generation student herself, she feels connected to the initiatives outlined in Success by Design and the three pillars of access, completion, and career and community engagement.

“The institution as a public regional comprehensive institution is what really drew me into the position,” Roybal says. “I know that for me personally that’s the type of student-athlete that I think is so special not just because their talents are amazing on the court or on the field, but they’re outstanding individuals who are doing great things in the classroom and even better things, brighter things, in our community.”

The other aspect that attracted Roybal to Norse Nation was the department’s relatively young age in Division I, particularly in the ever-changing landscape of college athletics.

“I think one of the great things about NKU is that as a young Division I program we haven’t had our heels dug in as to what it means to be Division I,” Roybal says. “So, to be able to pivot and to be able to address the changes that are coming really caught my attention.”

Roybal isn’t the first female athletics director in NKU’s storied athletics history. That distinction goes to Jane Meier, who led the Norse to incredible success in Division II. Under Meier’s tenure, NKU captured a pair of national titles in women’s basketball, 20 regional championships across all sports, and 61 conference titles. Now in Division I, Roybal aims to match and exceed that success. 

“The simplest way to measure success is winning in competition and in the classroom,” Roybal says. “Success, to me, is when all our programs have opportunities to compete at the top of the league. That’s hard to do. But I want there to be this drive, that striving for the top of the conference and to win championships.” 

Student-athletes are just as successful off the court. Athletics had a 3.49 department-wide GPA, which was the highest posted in NKU’s history. The department also saw its 23rd-straight semester with GPAs above a 3.0 and 17th consecutive semester over 3.2. 

“It is incredible the amount of continued success we have had in the classroom,” she says. “This academic excellence is due to the great work by our coaches, academic advisors, and most importantly the student-athletes working hard in the classroom.” 

While the NKU men’s basketball team has seen incredible sustained success since the Division I transition, qualifying for three NCAA tournaments, Roybal understands the importance of all sports competing at the highest levels. 

“Our brand becomes more prominent when we are successful in our other programs as well,” Roybal says. “Our Division I recognition comes from all of our programs being successful at the Division I level.” 

Long term, Roybal also wants to see growth within the department. In the years to come, she wants to expand the number of student-athletes, particularly on the track and field teams. She also says it’s possible that NKU adds a women’s sports program down the line. For now, though, Roybal is focusing on how the department can help the university with enrollment by continuing to attract high-performing student-athletes to campus. 

“Campus is trying to find the right mix for the different types of students,” Roybal says. “All of our student-athletes are traditional, campus-accessing students. So any way in which we can attract students to come to Northern Kentucky University as student-athletes, I believe that is beneficial to the university.” 

Roybal is excited for what the future holds, not just for herself, but for the program. 

“I know there are good things in store,” Roybal says. “We have great coaches and staff committed to student athlete success, incredible students doing amazing things at NKU, and we have supportive alumni, donors and fans that help us continue to elevate the program.” 

The woman who as a little girl dreamed of becoming a doctor before rising through the ranks to become the vice president and director of Athletics at Northern Kentucky University now wants to mentor young girls thinking of going into college athletics and leaving them with a bit of wise advice. 

“Anything is achievable, you just have to embrace the fact that it’s going to be hard, and it requires work. But you can get there. It’s also important to know that dreams may change and that’s okay. Don’t give up on your dreams. Absolutely don’t give up.” 

About This Article

April 2023

Written by
Clayton Castle ('15)
Contributor. NKU Magazine

Photography by
Scott Beseler