Knight Commission Urges A Student-Centered Approach in College Sports

[ Sessions and video with experts on anti-tax law and current litigation impacting college sports; educational goals; and professional standards for coaches ]

Photos and video of the meeting are available below the release.

The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics convened leaders in athletics administration and experts in antitrust and tax law, public policy and economics to examine pressing issues in college sports and concluded that universities must apply a more laser-like focus on the educational experience of students who compete in intercollegiate athletics.

In the face of legal and governmental pressures – and in the absence of a clear vision about what direction intercollegiate athletics will take in the coming years – the Commission reiterated its commitment to policies that recognize the educational value inherent in athletics participation and the access it provides to the full college academic experience.

“The current complexities facing college sports exist because universities have been responding to commercial challenges rather than to the primacy of the educational mission,” said Commission Co-Chair R. Gerald Turner, president at Southern Methodist University. “We believe every decision made during this time of change must be viewed through a student-centered lens. The time has come for the college athletics community to take control of issues that need solutions instead of leaving it to the courts and others to determine outcomes.”

Commission members urged actions that could be taken in the short term to place more emphasis on the educational imperative by reducing athletically related time demands, reducing financial payouts for winning and realigning them with educational values, and developing standards for coaches that emphasize their responsibilities as educators.

The meeting also featured two panels addressing potential ramifications of the O’Bannon vs. NCAA court ruling, and offering suggestions for managing the long-range impact of legal challenges to the current Division I structure and the evolving definition of amateurism.

Actions to emphasize the educational mission

The Commission believes two actions that can be taken to emphasize the educational mission of college sports are reducing college athlete time demands and changing financial incentives.

Specifically, the Commission reiterated its previous calls for payouts from lucrative rights agreements in football and men’s basketball to be redistributed in ways that prioritize educational goals over winning. As a starting point, the Commission suggested that the NCAA consider a phased reduction in the amount awarded for success in the men’s basketball tournament so that by 2020, it is less than one-third of the distribution formula. Currently, the NCAA awards nearly 40 percent of the more than $500 million annual distribution to Division I institutions based on men’s basketball tournament success.

“The Knight Commission has consistently called for the financial rewards associated with the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship and the College Football Playoff, whose finances are managed outside of the NCAA, to be modified to more clearly align rewards and resources toward supporting and achieving athletes’ educational goals,” Turner said.

Commission members also discussed campus-based incentives, noting that some schools have recently altered athletics administrators’ employment contracts to place a greater emphasis on the academic success and job readiness of athletes in place of large financial bonuses for winning championships. The Commission urged more universities to adopt that approach.

As for college athlete time demands, several recent studies show that the NCAA-imposed rules have not been effective, and that the maximum time limits on required athletic activities essentially have become the new minimums. The Commission has been on record calling for reductions and opposing the escalation in the number of games and length of seasons, including the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision’s move in 2005 to increase the number of regular-season football games from 11 to 12.

Knight Commission member and former University of Florida basketball player Sarah Lowe said, “Studies have shown that college athletes want more time to focus on their academic work and pursue opportunities such as internships, study abroad programs and career development. Universities must adopt principles and policies that encourage college athletes to take full advantage of their collegiate experience.”

The Commission also discussed issues related to retention rates and was much more concerned about the fact that 40 percent of all Division I men’s basketball players transfer or drop out of their initial school after their sophomore year (most are transfers) than they were by the small number of players who compete for one year before turning pro.

The Commission recommended that a solution be developed to respond to the growing trend for graduate athlete transfers to compete immediately for a final season but not finish their postgraduate degrees.

In addition, Commission members discussed the responsibility coaches have in advancing the educational mission. The Commission recommended developing standards for coaches that mirror those in other professions and that would emphasize their responsibilities as educators in their relationships with college athletes.

The Commission recommended that these proposals regarding time demands, financial incentives, graduate transfers and professional standards for coaches be priorities for discussion at the NCAA’s Division I strategic summit to be held in August.

Effects of litigation and an antitrust exemption for college sports

The Commission’s discussion regarding the health of the college sports landscape comes amid lawsuits and labor appeals that aim to change the benefits college players currently receive.

The most immediate challenge is the treatment of college athlete image rights under NCAA rules as a result of the O’Bannon v. NCAA ruling that is scheduled to go into effect on August 1, 2015. The ruling requires the NCAA to adjust its bylaws to allow universities to pay annually into a trust fund for distribution to each FBS football and Division I basketball player after their eligibility has expired, for the commercial use of their images. The NCAA has appealed and is awaiting a decision.

The Commission heard from a number of experts on the implications of this ruling, including Lorry Spitzer, tax partner at Ropes & Gray, who suggested that the deferred compensation allowed by the O’Bannon ruling would be considered taxable income.

Penn State professor Doug Allen offered a potential framework for applying the professional sports league model for facilitating group licensing of players’ name and image rights that would comply with O’Bannon and preserve the collegiate model.

The Commission also heard proposals from several experts on new regulatory approaches for college sports that might impose strict educational and financial reforms as part of an antitrust exemption. Other experts suggested that a greater focus on educational goals would accomplish more than seeking an antitrust exemption.

While the Commission did not endorse any specific proposal, members agreed that the time has come for NCAA leadership to develop oversight, legal and financial reforms that will define, preserve and protect student-centered educational goals in college sports.

Turner said, “As the Knight Commission wrote in its 1993 report, ‘the reforms we deem essential start with respect for the dignity of the young men and women who compete and the conviction that they occupy a legitimate place as students on our campuses. If we can get that right, everything else will fall into place. If we cannot, the rest of it will be all wrong.'”

Efforts to improve financial transparency

The Commission announced that it has updated its Athletic & Academic Spending Database for NCAA Division I to include the most recent academic and athletics data from the 2012-13 academic year. The database provides access to academic, athletics and football spending data for more than 220 public universities.

The database was created to advance its goal of providing more transparency for athletics finances in the context of spending related to the institution’s educational mission. The database can be accessed at

This meeting was the first for new members Walter Harrison, president, University of Hartford; Penelope Kyle, president, Radford University; and Nancy Zimpher, chancellor, State University of New York.

Photos and video of the meeting are available below.

About the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics

The Knight Commission was formed by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in October 1989 in response to highly visible scandals in college sports. The Commission’s goal is to promote a reform agenda that emphasizes the educational mission of college sports. Over the years, the NCAA has adopted a number of the Commission’s recommendations including the rule that requires teams to be on track to graduate more than 50 percent of their players in order to be eligible for postseason competition. The Commission’s Athletic and Academic Spending Database provides financial data for more than 220 public Division I institutions to provide greater financial transparency on athletics spending.

About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

The Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. We believe that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. For more, visit


  • Session 1: Examining the implications of the O’Bannon ruling and related issues impacting college athletes’ image rights not addressed in the ruling.
  • Session 2: Responding to Change: Alternative Regulatory Systems for College Sports