Distinguished Young Alumni Award
Travis Thompson Tygart ’93
Travis Tygart ’93 likes to win as much as anyone. In high school at the Bolles School in Jacksonville, Florida, he played on basketball and baseball teams that won state championships. But even as a youngster, he understood that a win through cheating is no win at all. Travis has devoted his career to maintaining the integrity of sports.
“We’re fighting culture and society,” he said of his quest to ensure that athletes don’t have to use drugs to stay competitive. “Our job is to ensure that the best athletes on the field are the ones playing by the rules and without drugs.”
As CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, Travis oversees a nonprofit organization that investigates Olympic athletes suspected of using performance-enhancing drugs; reaches out to young athletes and elite amateurs to educate them on making healthy, ethical choices; and funds research related to deterring drug use in sports.
USADA is not a government entity, though it does receive some federal funding. Travis, a lawyer, began as outside counsel to USADA when it was formed in 2000, shortly after the Sydney Olympics. He became USADA’s director of legal affairs in 2002, just before the BALCO cases were made public, and rose to the top of the agency in 2007.
During his career at USADA, Travis has testified before Congress no fewer than four times to advance the right of athletes to compete without the pressure of using drugs that would jeopardize their health and their integrity. His and other testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2008 resulted in the Senate ratifying the UNESCO anti-doping convention.
“Having our government sign a treaty to uphold the principles to protect clean athletes’ rights was a huge success for what we do in the anti-doping movement in the U.S.,” Travis said. “When you get rid of the normalized cheating culture, you’ve accomplished a great deal.”
Craig Camp ’93, Travis’ friend since kindergarten and now a director at Merrill Lynch, calls Travis “the Eliot Ness of sports.”
“You could say Travis practices what he preaches, but he doesn’t preach, he just practices,” Craig said. In high school, Travis avoided many of the temptations teenagers find irresistible, yet he got respect, not derision. He was president of his class his sophomore, junior and senior years and head of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. At UNC, he was president of his fraternity, Pi Kappa Alpha.
Travis’ leadership aptitude comes in part from his skills as a communicator, said Bill Bock, who serves as outside counsel to USADA and has worked with Travis on anti-doping investigations for a decade.
“Travis’ position requires a lot of nuance,” Bill said. “He has to be aggressive in ferreting out cheating but communicate about it in such a way as to retain good relationships with people in different camps — the International Olympic Committee, athletes and coaches, heads of federations and people in professional sports who contribute money to the cause of anti-doping. Travis is able to build consensus and use his values as a persuasive tool to keep people moving forward toward clean sports.”
As a child, Travis had more drive than talent in sports, said his dad, Tom Tygart ’62. Travis didn’t let a broken hand deter him from playing youth basketball one season, and he worked hard to keep up with his talented older brother.
It was at Southern Methodist University law school, where Travis enrolled after coaching and teaching a few years at his high school, that he revealed his academic ability, graduating with honors and being recruited by a top law firm in Texas before joining a sports law firm in Colorado.
Travis returns to UNC at least once a year to speak to classes in the journalism school, law school and philosophy department on ethics issues. Jan Boxill, director of the Parr Center for Ethics at UNC, marvels at Travis’ ability to maintain a positive view of humanity. She recalls he was once asked during an interview whether he believed he was butting his head against a wall by trying to rid sports of performance-enhancing substances. His response was, in effect, that he was representing the millions of people who don’t cheat, in sports or in other aspects of life.
Jan pointed out that often Travis is vilified by athletes and their handlers after an athlete tests positive for a banned substance. But Travis continues without becoming bitter or defensive. “He doesn’t allow what’s being said about him or USADA to change his course of action when he knows what he’s doing is the right thing,” Jan said. “Sports plays a significant role in society. Because of that, he thinks it ought to be a paragon of integrity.”