0

Knight Commission calls for reform

Photo by Daniel Kay

Photo by Daniel Kay

An influential watchdog group on Thursday called on members of the NCAA and the Bowl Championship Series to change the way they divide millions of dollars in men's basketball and football revenue, proposing the creation of a fund that would allocate money based on academic success rather than victories or tournament appearances.

The recommendation by the group, the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, provided a kind of counterpoint to the seismic tremors that have shaken the college sports landscape in recent weeks, moves prompted largely by debates over who should get what share of millions of dollars in television revenue, and why. As Nebraska, Colorado and Utah have announced plans to switch conferences -- and as others have contemplated following suit -- the discussion has centered on wins and losses, television markets and brand image.

Placing a larger emphasis on academic performance was one of several ideas proposed by the commission in a report aimed at encouraging colleges and universities to take a collective deep breath and slow the rate of spending on athletics.

"The situation we're in right now is basically a financial race to generate more and more money to support intercollegiate athletics, and it's a time when our institutions are under such incredible pressure to maintain the integrity of their academic programs," said William Kirwan, the co-chairman of the commission and the chancellor of Maryland's university system.

Jim Isch, the interim president of the NCAA, applauded the outlines of the commission's report Thursday, but he quibbled with some of the proposals, which he said were either unrealistic or already under way. "The NCAA and its member schools are overwhelmingly in concert with the Knight Commission," Isch said in a statement "However, we feel there are some aspects of both the data and solutions advanced that require clarification and debate."

The report recommended that the NCAA cut in half the amount of men's basketball revenues that are allocated based on victories and appearances -- $167 million in 2010, according to the report, or 40 percent of shared revenues -- and divert the remaining half into a fund that would be distributed based on how well universities balance academics with athletics. The report recommended a similar system for the BCS, with at least 20 percent of postseason football revenues distributed according to academic success.

Another recommendation resurrects an idea proposed by the commission in 2001, which suggested requiring that a team be on track to graduate at least half of its players in order to be eligible for postseason championships. In his statement, Isch said that requirement would be complicated and unfair to teams that were improving. "Our current penalty structure that accounts for improvement is fair and has the desired effect -- an emphasis on academic success," Isch said.

However, he said he would support the creation of a fund that tied financial rewards to academic success and said a group of university presidents and conference commissioners was already looking into whether to consider academic performance in the distribution of basketball revenue.

In the two decades since it was formed, the Knight Commission, which includes several university presidents and trustees, has been credited with spearheading several changes in college athletics, including a sweeping set of academic reforms that were passed in 2004.

In taking up financial reform, the commission has its work cut out for it, said John Cheslock, an associate professor at Penn State who studies the economics of intercollegiate athletics. "We can get individual schools to restrain expenditures, but the competitive pressures are so severe that it's hard for any individual school to unilaterally restrain spending," he said.

Those forces, the report argues, have led colleges and universities to increase spending on athletics at a rate that outpaces spending on academics. At public institutions in the Football Bowl Subdivision, the median amount of athletic spending per athlete grew 38 percent between 2005 and 2008. That rate was nearly twice as high as the median spending per student on academics, the report found.

One of the commission's recommendations would require public and private institutions to make their financial reports public. In his statement, Isch said he supported the recommendation, but an NCAA article posted alongside his remarks noted that colleges and universities have been historically reluctant to share financial data.