How the Knight Commission would recast college sports

The Knight Commission has long been an advocate for greater academic rigor in big-time college sports. Thursday it proposed new standards to try to combat the 'arms race' of athletic spending.

By , Staff writer

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    University of Washington players warm up during the NCAA men's basketball tournament on March 24. The team had a 29 percent graduation rate for its players, meaning it would have been banned from March Madness according to new academic standards proposed by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics Thursday.
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College sports is big business. But are Division I schools’ spending priorities so out of whack as to threaten the very integrity of their educational mission?

That’s the premise of the latest report by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. It calls for reforms designed to rein in the “arms race” of athletics spending and to treat college athletes as students rather than professionals.

The report notes that median spending per athlete grew by 38 percent between 2005 and 2008 at the big-sport schools of the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Football Bowl Subdivision, previously known as Division I-A. At the same schools, academic spending per student grew 20 percent. The schools spend about $84,000 per athlete, versus $13,000 per student for academics.

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“The NCAA ... frequently speaks about the importance of academics as an integral part of intercollegiate athletics.... We’re just saying, let’s live by that principle.... Let’s make certain that a significant fraction of [sports] revenue is dedicated to rewarding high academic performance,” said William Kirwan, co-chairman of the commission and chancellor of the University System of Maryland, during a press conference Thursday.

Athletes’ academic success has improved in recent years after previous Knight Commission recommendations took hold, such as publicizing graduation rates and tightening eligibility rules. Now, the 22-member commission says, it’s time to raise standards again and change the financial-incentive structure.

Some of the recommendations:

  • Require public reports on individual schools’ athletics spending and revenue, including comparisons of the growth of athletic and academic spending. Especially given the pressures of the recession, raising public awareness could help university presidents make otherwise unpopular decisions to pull back on athletic spending.
  • Make eligibility for postseason play, such as basketball’s March Madness tournament, dependent on teams being on track to graduate at least 50 percent of their athletes. Teams are already measured through an Academic Progress Rate (APR) score, and low scores over several years trigger a series of sanctions. But this proposal would trigger a postseason ban more quickly.
  • Change NCAA formulas for distributing shared revenue to better reflect educational values. Specifically, it calls for much of the revenue to be diverted to an “Academic-Athletics Balance Fund” to be shared among all Division I schools that meet certain criteria, including the 50 percent graduation target.

NCAA interim president Jim Isch issued a statement supporting the principles of the commission’s report. But he noted a need for debate on some recommendations. Most notably, he objected to the immediate postseason penalty for teams with a graduation rate of less than 50 percent.

“Our current penalty structure that accounts for improvement is fair and has the desired effect – an emphasis on academic success,” he said.

“There must be a bright line between college and professional sports; these recommendations will help to better distinguish that line,” said Leonard Elmore, a former college and pro basketball player, now the CEO of iHoops. Mr. Elmore is one of the 22 members of the commission, which has operated since 1989 with the support of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Any implementation of recommendations would require university leaders to bring proposals to NCAA meetings, where there will probably be some resistance, “especially on the strong line about academic progress rates and how they might relate to being knocked out of post-season play,” says Pat Forde, a senior sports columnist at ESPN.

There’s more awareness now of athletes’ academic track records, but “whether that translates to a true movement of radically remaking the system – I don’t think so,” he says.

Kadence Otto, who teaches sport management at Western Carolina University, says she’s not confident the report will bring about significant change.

Even if some of the recommendations are implemented, the idea of rewarding schools for mediocre results, such as a 50 percent athlete graduation rate, would be like “rewarding parents for taking care of their children,” says Ms. Otto, past president of the Drake Group, a network of faculty working to defend academic integrity in the face of the growing college sport industry.

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