After launching her career as a communications professional at the University of Kentucky, and later with the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, Gail Dent landed a role with the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). Today, she is an NCAA associate director of communications. But in 1988, she was a Louisville native who had stepped into the unknown by moving to Lexington for a job with UK Athletics and to study for a master’s degree in sport leadership.
Last semester, Dent returned to speak with students in the UK College of Education Department of Kinesiology and Health Promotion. She shared her journey to emphasize the importance of strategically gathering information before making career moves, while also taking risks and embracing change.
“I took a chance in coming to UK. A lot of my family back home were older, and they were Louisville fans,” Dent said. “You can imagine many Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, somebody would start something and I was right there to defend the blue.”
Dent’s mother and father were avid sports fans, so family time often took place around televised games.
“Dad had a big chair and would put a little chair beside him and that was daddy-daughter time. We would yell and scream. The NFL was where I wanted to be. I saw the excitement on TV and saw people cheering. I was a female, a person of color, but not seeing role models didn’t deter me from wanting to work in the NFL.”
Still, Dent told students they should always have a backup plan. Despite volunteer work experiences gained as an undergraduate at Eastern Kentucky University, rejection letters from NFL teams encouraged her to try again after even more time working in communications. In the meantime, Dent found a position in Louisville doing customer service for Humana, which gave her experience with solving problems. Still, she longed for a career in professional football. One evening, flipping through a magazine, Dent saw the name of someone who had been hired by the NFL. She decided to be bold and write to him.
Eventually, she got a response, and it changed her life — just not in the ways she expected. The NFL contact told her the commissioner prefers employees to have more experience to be set up for success. Meanwhile, they wanted to recommend her for an opening at UK, if she was interested in moving to Lexington.
“I was a Black female from Louisville,” Dent said. “I didn’t know how I would be accepted or what the reactions would be toward me. I didn’t know the unknowns. My advice, when you’re looking for a position, is to speak with people in that area, in that industry, someone affiliated with the organization or company. The unknowns almost kept me from coming to UK, which would have cut me at the knees. My career could have been very, very different and not as great as it has been thus far.”
Dent stayed at UK for nine years, and part of that time included working with the football program. The university was one of the first in the nation with women on the football field as athletic trainers and working in roles such as sports information, traveling with teams and dealing with high profile issues.
Dent says what she learned in her job and through earning a master’s degree in kinesiology and health promotion with a specialty in sport leadership set the stage for the career moves that followed. In fact, when she left UK to work for the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, they told her she was selected because of what she had been able to do and be exposed to at Kentucky. Earning a master’s degree while working at UK also made a difference for her career.
“Working on my master’s degree opened me up to being able to discuss issues. I didn’t see it back then, but in class we would argue and debate and the experience has been beneficial when maneuvering through situations and discussions at the NCAA. That is something I didn’t get as much of at the undergraduate level. The master’s degree does make a difference down the road. It made me very competitive in a competitive industry.”
Her experiences at UK were Dent’s first glimpses into the power of change, but change has never stopped. Her career has spanned the advent of 24-hour news networks, the rise of social media, and student athletes’ ability to monetize their notoriety through new guidance on name, image, and likeness rules, to name only a few shifts.
“The world is more diverse and sports is a microcosm of society,” Dent said. “What you see in society, you also see happening in sport. We have more emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion, social justice movements, and student athlete expression. Society is becoming even more diverse. Things are always changing. Embrace change because it is coming and you want to be on the front end instead of the back end. In higher education, we are having to change too.”
Dent encouraged students to have diverse mindsets at their tables when pursuing projects, including people with different identities, abilities, backgrounds and experiences. She also advocated for being innovative and thinking outside the box.
“The status quo is boring. Think for yourselves and be strategic,” Dent said.
Sports communications professionals in roles such as Dent’s must understand the demands of an ever-changing industry and know how to navigate communicating on a variety of topics and issues. Still, Dent encouraged students to not let the requirements listed on job descriptions intimidate them. They should determine what interests them and go for it, Dent said.
“Pay attention to what you want to do and what is out there,” she said. “People will try to influence you with different directions, their directions. Think for yourself and get your facts. You have to take risks. If you don’t make mistakes, you’re not growing. I took a risk and UK took a risk on me. We took a risk on each other and it worked out very well.”