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Knight Commission Blasts Runaway Spending in College Sports

With spending on big-time college sports continuing to escalate and TV networks lining up to break the bank, a group of university presidents and campus leaders says it’s past time for more of that money to wind up in the classroom.

The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics on Thursday released its latest call for a range of financial and academic reforms. Among its recommendations: NCAA schools should set aside at least 20 percent of the postseason money received from the football Bowl Championship Series for academic use.

The timing of the report, entitled “Restoring the Balance: Dollars, Values and the Future of College Sports,” couldn’t have been better.

Just this week, the Big 12 Conference staved off a Pac-10 raid that would have meant not only the league’s demise but the likely creation of at least one 16-team megaconference based on the ability to attract lucrative television deals rather than regional links and historic rivalries.

For now, the Pac-10 will grow by just two teams (Colorado and Utah), with the Big Ten luring Nebraska from a leaner Big 12.

“This report is particularly timely given the commercially driven agenda of conference realignment,” said Dr. William Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland and co-chairman of the Knight panel. There is every reason to believe that the current direction of big-time college sports is leading us to even greater imbalances in the fiscal priority for athletics over academics.”

The 22-member commission, which includes current and former chancellors and presidents from Bowling Green, Florida, Georgetown, Georgia, Michigan, Southern Methodist and UCLA, knows it can’t completely halt that train.

Instead, the panel wants athletic programs that are often flush with cash to lend a hand to the rest of campus particularly amid a historic recession that has led many schools to dramatically increase tuition while firing professors or turning away from admission otherwise qualified students.

The report notes that from 2005 to 2008, athletics spending increased at more than twice the rate of academic spending at nearly all of the 103 Football Bowl Subdivision schools. On average, FBS schools spend more than six times as much on athletics per capita than on academics. And most schools are forced to tap general university funds to balance their athletics budgets.

In addition to redistributing BCS money, the report also suggests changing the revenue distribution formula from NCAA men’s basketball tournaments to give more emphasis to academic success instead of on-court performance. The NCAA recently announced a new 14-year, $10.8 billion deal with CBS Sports and Turner Broadcasting for the March Madness tourney.

The Knight panel also wants to limit participation in NCAA championships to schools where at least 50 percent of a team’s athletes are on track to graduate an idea similar to one endorsed earlier this year by Education Secretary Arne Duncan but quickly shot down by several prominent basketball coaches.

Interim NCAA president Jim Isch attended the commission’s Washington announcement. He said the NCAA and its members are “overwhelmingly in concert” with the Knight report but expressed reservations about several specific proposals, including the 50-percent graduation requirement.

That figure corresponds to a score of 925 on the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate. Teams falling below that score generally face a penalty of reduced scholarships, although postseason bans are possible. The Knight panel wants the APR standards to apply in real time, rather than after the fact.

“Our current penalty structure that accounts for improvement is fair and has the desired effect an emphasis on academic success,” Isch said in a written statement. “As simple as it sounds, we don’t think establishing a specific postseason penalty trigger of 925 for all teams is fair especially to those teams that are improving.”

Isch also said NCAA committees are reviewing revenue distribution and “the entire Academic Performance Program, including the penalty structure, filters and Academic Progress Rate benchmarks.”

The report also urges NCAA schools to publicly share more of their financial data on athletics spending, and establish limits on the number of athletics employees not directly working as coaches or in academic support or health and safety roles. Examples of those jobs include video coordinators and directors of sports operations.

And since amateur student-athletes are prohibited from earning money by playing sports, the NCAA should prohibit the use of their identities in video games and other commercial endeavors. Such unapproved use of player images is the subject of an antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA and two of its business partners by a group of former college athletes.

Commission member Len Elmore, a former college and pro basketball player, said the panel recognizes the importance of college sports to a degree.

“There must be a bright line between college and professional sports,” he said. “We’re not saying that there cannot be an investment in sports. We are saying that the investment needs to be put in perspective.”

Since its formation in 1989, the Knight Commission has seen some of its recommendations embraced by NCAA members, with other reports merely gathering dust on the bookshelf.

But the broader economic meltdown provides a better opportunity to push for meaningful reform, said Kirwan.

The time is right,” he said. “The larger fiscal crisis gives this report special currency and importance.”

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