Knight Foundation Commission Says: College Presidents Must Assert Control to Cure College Sports Problems

The independent, blue-ribbon Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics reported Tuesday on “abuses…threatening the very integrity of higher education” and proposed a sweeping reform agenda based on university presidents’ asserting control of all aspects of college sports.

Keeping Faith with the Student-Athlete: a New Model for Intercollegiate Athletics” is the title of the 47-page report issued by the 22-member Commission after more than 18 months of study and five hearings, and the report repeatedly cites “the welfare of the student- athlete” as its “overarching concern.”

“Intercollegiate athletics exist first and foremost for the student- athletes who participate, whether male or female, majority or minority, whether they play football in front of 50,000 or field hockey in front of their friends,” the Commission said. “It is the university’s obligation to educate all of them.”

To accomplish this aim, the Commission proposed what it called “the one-plus-three model,” which it termed “the foundation on which those who care about higher education and student-athletes can build permanent reform.”

The “one” refers to “presidential control,” which would be carried out by the chief executive officers of universities taking control in “three” areas:

  • “academic integrity,” fulfilling the “fundamental premise that athletes are students as well.”
  • “financial integrity,” meaning that the presidents should exert primary control over all aspects of the financial operations of their athletic programs.
  • “certification,” meaning presidents should establish “independent authentication by an outside body of the integrity of each institution’s athletics program.”

“The Commission’s bedrock conviction is that university presidents are the key to successful reform,” the report said. “They must be in charge — and be understood to be in charge — on campuses, in conferences, and in the decision-making councils of the NCAA.”

The Commission, composed of education, business, and sports leaders, is co-chaired by former university presidents Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh of Notre Dame and William C. Friday of North Carolina, who discussed the report at a news conference on Washington.

At its five hearings, the Commission heard testimony regarding its reform for college sports from more than 80 persons. Among those who appeared were famous “name” coaches, including football coaches Joe Paterno of Penn State, Terry Donahue of UCLA, and Tom Osborne of Nebraska and basketball coaches Bob Knight of Indiana, Dean Smith of North Carolina, and John Thompson of Georgetown, as well as student- athletes, athletics directors and senior women athletic administrators conference commissioners, faculty, media and pro-sports representatives, and other officials.

The Commission, which was funded by a grant from the philanthropic Knight Foundation, had high praise for the value of college athletics in campus life and noted that problems which have come to private and public attention “are not universal.”

“But they are sufficiently common that it is no longer possible to conclude they represent the workings of a handful of misguided individuals or a few ‘rotten apples’,” the of commission said. It pointed out that one-half of all Division I-A schools (the 106 colleges and universities with the most competitive and expensive football programs) were the object sanctions of varying severity by the NCAA during the 1980s, and that “other institutions, unsanctioned, graduate very few student-athletes in revenue-producing sports.”

The Commission said the academic and financial problems “are so deep-rooted and long-standing they must be understood to be systemic.”

“They can no longer be swept under the rug or kept under control by tinkering around the edges,” the Commission said. “Because these problems are so widespread, nothing short of a new structure holds much promise for restoring intercollegiate athletics to their proper place in the university. This report of the Knight Foundation Commission is designed to suggest such a structure.”

“At their worst, big-time college athletics appear to have lost their bearings,” the Commission said, adding that it found the public is increasingly aware of this fact. “We sense that public concern about abuse is growing,” it said. “The public appears ready to believe that many institutions achieve their athletic goals not through honest effort, but through equivocation, not by hard work and sacrifice, but by hook and by crook.”

The Commission said it searched for “solutions, not scapegoats” and that its conclusions “put less emphasis on setting specific solutions in concrete than on proposing a structure through which these issues — and others arising in the future — may be addressed by the responsible administrators.”

Among key proposals by the Commission were these:

Presidential control:

  • Presidents must have “the same degree of control over athletics that they exercise elsewhere in the university” — including the authority to hire and fire coaches and athletic directors and oversee all financial matters.
  • Trustees should explicitly endorse and reaffirm presidential authority in all matters of athletics governance.
  • Trustees, alumni, and local boosters all must defer to presidential control.

Academic integrity:

  • “Cutting academic corners” by admitting athletes who have not been judged by academic officials as likely to graduate “will not be tolerated.”
  • “No Pass, No Play” must be the “byword of college sports in admissions, academic progress and graduation rates.”
  • An athlete must show evidence of academic progress each semester in order to be eligible, and that is defined as being on track “toward graduation within five years of enrollment.”
  • Graduation rates for student-athletes should “be similar to the graduation rates of other students who have spent comparable time as full-time students.”

Financial integrity:

  • “All funds raised and spent for athletics” must go through the university’s central financial controls “subject to the same oversight and controls as funds in other departments.” That specifically means booster clubs “will not be permitted to provide support for athletic programs outside the administration’s direct control.”
  • Contracts for “athletics-related outside income” of coaches and administrators must be negotiated through the university. The Commission specifically included mention of shoe contracts, i.e., endorsements of equipment by coaches, in this category.
  • “Institutional” funds should be allowed to be spent on athletics. Removing the need for revenue-producing sports to support non-revenue sports can relieve some pressure to have winning teams.


  • Every NCAA institution should have a “thorough independent audit of all academic and financial matters related to athletics” every year.
  • Every NCAA institution granting athletics aid should be required to participate in a “comprehensive certification program” … Certification “will depend, in large measure, on the comparison of student-athletes, by sport, with the rest of the student body in terms of admissions, academic progress and graduation.

Although the Commission proposed that a number of the problems be handled by presidents through the instrument of the NCAA (The National Collegiate Athletic Association), it acknowledged that “the NCAA has many critics” and also that “some of the members of this Commission are among the organization’s more severe critics; most of us are not.”

However, it also pointed out that if the NCAA did not exist, the universities would “have to create it, or something very much like it” because “a governing, rulemaking and disciplinary body of some sort is required.” It also pointed out that, since the NCAA is the “creature of its own members,” those members “have only themselves to blame for its shortcomings.”

It called on the presidents to exercise their control more directly through the various councils of the NCAA and it called on NCAA officials to simplify and codify “complex NCAA rules and procedures” so that “any man or woman on the street” can understand them.

It also called for a new method of distributing TV proceeds from the NCAA basketball tournament so as to remove pressure for winning.

NCAA executive director Richard Schultz is one of the members of the Commission. The Commission recently expressed pleasure that college presidents, whom it had urged to “come off the sidelines” and become more involved in NCAA matters, had asserted increased pressure in the January 1991 convention of the NCAA in Nashville, Tenn., resulting in the passage of some reform measures, chiefly economic, at those sessions.

The Commission included in its report a statement of 10 “principles,” which it said should be discussed on all college campuses in order to help “define what the university expects and how it hopes to realize its expectations.”

The principles begin with a preamble expressing the institution’s commitment to “firm institutional control of athletics, to the unquestioned academic and financial integrity of our athletics program and to the accountability of the athletics department to the values and goals befitting higher education.”

Among the key principles were:

  • That the welfare, health and safety of student-athletes are “primary concerns of athletics administration on this campus.”
  • That the “educational values, practices and mission of this institution determine the standards by which we conduct our athletics program.”

Among its more specific recommendations, the commission took note of problems facing student-athletes and coaches.

For example, it noted that current NCAA regulations bind a student-athlete to an institution once he or she has signed a “letter of intent,” even if the coach leaves the institution before the student- athlete arrives. In these circumstances, which do not apply to any other kind of student, the athlete should be free to leave for any school other than the one to which the coach transferred.

Furthermore, it said, “coaches should be offered long-term contracts” because they need “greater security in an insecure field.” Giving coaches “renewable, long-term contracts” within five years of contractual employment will remove some of the pressure coaches now feel.

In addition to Hesburgh and Friday, Commission members include:

Lamar Alexander, former president of the University of Tennessee and recently confirmed Secretary of Education; Creed C. Black, president, Knight Foundation; Douglas A. Dibbert, General Alumni Association, University of North Carolina; John A. DiBiaggio, president, Michigan State University; Thomas K. Hearn, president, Wake Forest University; J. Lloyd Huck, chairman of the board, Penn State University; Bryce Jordan, president emeritus, Penn State University; Richard W. Kazmaier, president, Kazmaier Associates (former Heisman Trophy winner); Donald R. Keough, president, The Coca-Cola Company; Martin A. Massengale, president, University of Nebraska.

Also, Rep. Tom McMillen (D-Md.), U.S. House of Representatives; Chase N. Peterson, president, University of Utah; Jane C. Pfeiffer, former chair, National Broadcasting Co.; A. Kenneth Pye, president, Southern Methodist University; Richard D. Schultz, executive director, National Collegiate Athletic Association; Donna E. Shalala, chancellor, University of Wisconsin-Madison; LeRoy T. Walker, Treasurer, United States Olympic Committee; James J. Whalen, president, Ithaca College; Clifford R. Wharton, chairman and CEO, TIAA-CREF; and Charles E. Young, chancellor, UCLA.

The Knight Foundation is one of the nation’s largest foundations. It is wholly separate from and independent of Knight-Ridder, Inc. but supports worthy causes and organizations in communities where Knight-Ridder has newspapers. The Foundation also makes selected national grants in journalism, higher education, and the field of arts and culture.