- Full report: Transforming the NCAA D-I Model: Recommendations for Change
- Presentation slide deck
- Transforming the NCAA D-I Model: A 4-Part Series video recordings, reports, presentation materials and more
After a year-long examination, the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics called today for major governance changes for Division I sports, proposing a new governing entity for the sport of football at the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) level, separate from the NCAA. The NCAA would govern all other sports in a reorganized Division I governance, and schools with FBS football programs would remain part of the NCAA in all other sports except football.
The Commission unveiled its recommendations, outlined in a new report, Transforming the NCAA D-I Model: Recommendations for Change, at its virtual forum today. The restructuring proposal responds to key shortcomings in NCAA governance and organizational structure identified in a recent Knight Commission survey of D-I leaders, including college presidents, athletics directors and conference commissioners, and provides a “big solution” that leaders desire.
The Commission’s proposal for governance reform would make no change to the NCAA’s Division I men’s and women’s basketball championships. Nearly 4 in 5 survey respondents agreed it was essential for March Madness to maintain its current format.
The NCAA currently handles all regulatory functions for the sport of FBS football yet does not receive any revenues from the sport. FBS football’s national championship, the College Football Playoff (CFP), is managed instead by the independent CFP Administration, LLC, outside of the NCAA structure. The revenues from that championship, which generated more than $460 million in 2019, are retained by the FBS conferences and institutions to use however they choose.
“We’re at a moment of both crisis and opportunity in college sports,” said Knight Commission co-chair Arne Duncan, former U.S. Secretary of Education. “Now is not the time to think only of narrow institutional interests. Now is the time for college leaders to step up, and act on their desire to advance big solutions to benefit college athletes.”
The Commission’s novel survey found that nearly 80 percent of Division I campus and sports leaders favor “big solutions” over incremental change for reforming D-I governance, and those leaders also believe the crisis created by the COVID-19 pandemic presents the “perfect time” to address serious governance shortcomings.
The NCAA’s 114-year history is marked by a steady pattern of major college football programs seeking greater autonomy from NCAA control.
However, the Knight Commission has concluded that the governance of NCAA Division I is no longer keeping pace with the rapid commercial growth of college athletics, particularly FBS football. Separating the sport of FBS football from the NCAA would end Division I’s financially dysfunctional system of governance, in which the NCAA absorbs all national expenses for FBS football, without receiving any financial benefits from the sport or its College Football Playoff. Those expenses include enforcement, catastrophic insurance, legal services, health and safety administration and research.
“No single entity today is responsible for FBS football – the most powerful sport in Division I athletics,” said incoming Knight Commission co-chair Nancy Zimpher, Chancellor Emeritus of the State University of New York. “It is time to end this leadership void and bring more accountability to the sport, both for the benefit of athletes and for the future of FBS football.”
The new governing entity would be funded by CFP revenues, and manage all issues related to the sport of FBS football, including athlete education, health, safety, revenue distribution, litigation, eligibility and enforcement. (For ease of explanation, the Commission is calling the new organization the “National College Football Association,” or NCFA.)
As part of its reform proposal, the Knight Commission recommended principles to guide both the NCAA and the new NCFA. Those principles seek to maintain college sports as a public trust that prioritizes college athletes’ education, health, safety and success.
The Commission’s guiding principles for the reorganized NCAA and the new NCFA state that college athletes should remain students, making satisfactory progress toward a degree, and should not be paid by their institutions to play. However, the athletes could earn compensation for the use of their names, images and likenesses (NIL) from sources other than their institutions, as the Knight Commission recommended in April 2020.
Under the Commission’s proposal, Division I membership in all sports except FBS football would remain the same, and all schools currently classified in the FBS would remain full NCAA Division I members in sports other than football.
NCAA Division I governance would be reorganized around men’s basketball – which funds nearly all NCAA operations and is the one sport that all Division I members offer. This structure will allow leaders to more fully focus on this sport, and align incentives, policies and administration in ways that will better serve the future of men’s basketball.
This reorganized governance would have equal voting representation for all D-I conferences, replacing the current system that awards weighted voting to FBS conferences. The Commission’s D-I leaders survey revealed support for major governance changes, with less than a third of all respondents expressing satisfaction with NCAA Division I governance. More than 80 percent of survey respondents at non-FBS schools said that the current weighted voting arrangement that FBS schools receive is “inappropriate.”
At the same time, the Commission’s restructuring proposal would provide a reset opportunity for FBS programs that can no longer afford to compete at the highest level of college football and would prefer to affiliate with the NCAA, instead of the new FBS football organization. In the Commission’s survey, three in five FBS leaders acknowledged that they spend too much on FBS football “to keep up” with other schools.
Some FBS programs, especially those in the Group of 5 conferences, are heavily dependent on student fees and school funding to pay for athletics programs, and could use the reorganization as an off-ramp from the highly-commercialized college football environment of the wealthiest FBS conferences, the Power 5.
The Commission believes its recommended governance model will help not only the NCAA but FBS football, while keeping college sports tethered to core principles of higher education. Each governing entity will benefit from being an independent, unified structure for the sports that it oversees, replacing the current fragmented model.
“An independent FBS football group that conducts both its championship and its administration will be able to apply its revenues to support athletes’ academic success, safety, health and well-being, and allocate revenues to other important purposes for the health of the sport, like advancing racial equity,” said the Commission’s other co-chair, Carol Cartwright.
The governance reform recommendations today cap a year of ambitious Commission reforms, including NIL principles released in April and recommendations in September to eliminate the exemption that allows the sport of FBS football to count in the NCAA’s March Madness revenue distribution formula. FBS football does not meet the NCAA’s qualifying criterion to be included in the calculation— namely, that the NCAA operate a sport’s postseason championship.
Under the Commission’s recommended national governance principles, only sports for which the NCAA conducts championships would be considered in its revenue distribution formula.
The Knight Commission will present its recommendations to the NCAA’s Division I Presidential Forum in January. It also plans to convene an FBS presidential summit for leaders to consider these recommendations, and the creation of an independent special task force to develop the proposed National College Football Association.
The reform recommendations were made at today’s fourth and final virtual forum of the Knight Commission’s fall examination of Division I, Transforming the NCAA D-I Model: A 4-Part Series. The first forum examined the sources and distribution of money in Division I sports, using graphs and data from the Commission’s College Athletics Financial Information (CAFI) database. The second forum explained the NCAA’s revenue distribution, and revealed an independent analysis showing that more than $60 million annually is distributed solely due to the way the NCAA counts FBS football and its scholarships in its March Madness revenue distribution calculation. The third forum highlighted results of the Commission’s D-I survey. Video of all sessions, along with other materials, can be found here.
About the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics
The Knight Commission was formed by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in October 1989 to promote reforms that lead transformational change to prioritize college athletes’ education, health, safety and success. To preserve the Commission’s independence, the foundation continues to be its sole supporter, but does not control, or attempt to control, the Commission’s opinions or pronouncements. 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 at least 50 percent of their players to be eligible for postseason competition. The Commission provides financial data about Division I college sports to enhance financial transparency and accountability. For more, visit knightcommission.org.
About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
Knight Foundation is a national foundation with strong local roots. We invest in journalism, in the arts and in the success of cities where brothers John S. and James L. Knight once published newspapers. Our goal is to foster informed and engaged communities, which we believe are essential for a healthy democracy. For more, visit kf.org.