It’s Time for a Racial Reckoning in College Sports: Knight Commission Releases Plan to Create Racial Equity for Black College Athletes

Reforms include permanently eliminating standardized testing for athletic eligibility, boosting diversity in recruiting and hiring of leadership, creating more opportunities for Black student leadership and advocacy, and a renewed request for the College Football Playoff to invest in diversity initiatives.

In a report released today, the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics called on universities, athletics conferences, the College Football Playoff (CFP) and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) to take decisive action to address systemic policies and practices that create barriers to the success of Black college athletes. The Commission’s report, “Achieving Racial Equity in College Sports,” was guided by a task force led by Chair Len Elmore and co-Vice Chairs and former college athletes Shanteona Keys and Jacques McClendon. The report outlines policy changes in four core areas that the NCAA and its member institutions should make to achieve racial equity in sports:

  1. Closing educational opportunity gaps to create equitable pathways for Black college athletes’ success during and after college. These recommendations include permanently eliminating standardized test scores as an athletics eligibility criterion and instead employing a more holistic review of student readiness. (The NCAA currently is reviewing the use of standardized testing for determining eligibility and suspended the use of test scores for three years due to the pandemic). The report also calls for the NCAA to dramatically boost financial support for historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the Accelerating Academic Success Program.
  2. Holding institutions accountable in recruitment and hiring to achieve diversity and equity in athletics leadership. Among other recommendations, the report urges conferences and schools to adopt the “Russell Rule” as standard practice (named in honor of Bill Russell and first adopted by the West Coast Conference). The Russell Rule requires each institution to include a member of a traditionally underrepresented community in the pool of final candidates for athletics leadership positions, including athletic director and head coach. Each conference school and the conference office would file an annual report card on the demographics of athletic leadership searches and hiring.
  3. Investing in programs that support and enhance Black athletes’ college experience and promote inclusion and belonging. Schools and conferences should be establishing a network of Black alumni and faculty to serve as mentors and providing a dedicated stream of funding for summer bridge programs for incoming Black college athletes.
  4. Creating more equitable opportunities for Black college athletes to assume leadership roles, especially in advocacy and governance. Reforms should include establishing mentorship programs outside of the athletics department that enrich the development of Black athletes and expanding the ranks of college representatives who serve as advocates for the experiences of Black athletes. The report also calls for a safe process for Black athletes to report any discrimination or treatment concerns, without fear of reprisal.
The Knight Commission invites the public to a virtual town hall hosted on Monday, May 24th at 11am PT/2pm ET. The event will be a live panel sharing the timelines and details of the report’s important recommendations, as well as a Q&A section for guests. [Watch the Virtual Town Hall HERE.]

“The Commission’s report comes in the midst of a historic reckoning on race and a rise in Black student activism on college campuses. This moment demands transformational actions that specifically improve the college experience for Black athletes, coaches, and athletics personnel throughout all competitive divisions of college sports,” said Elmore. “The Knight Commission’s report lays out a road map for how the CFP, and the NCAA and its member institutions can turn pledges into policies that do just that.”

In addition to the new action steps, the Commission underscored the importance of its April 2020 principles to guide new rules to allow all athletes to earn compensation for the use of their name, image and likeness (NIL). While new NIL opportunities will benefit all athletes, it is expected that the greatest financial benefit will be for athletes in Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) football and Division I basketball, which have a higher percentage of Black athletes, many of whom face formidable financial strains at college.

The Commission also urges action on its prior proposals to add current college football players, including Black college football players, to the CFP governing board. As reports emerge that the CFP is considering expanding to include more teams, the Knight Commission renewed its 2017 request to the CFP Board of Managers to set aside at least one percent of its nearly $500 million annual distribution—a penny of every dollar—to fund initiatives to boost the diversity of leadership in college football and in athletics departments. The CFP does not designate any of its revenues—not a dime—to support national diversity initiatives, and FBS head coaches are among the least diverse groups in all of Division I leadership, despite the fact that about half of all FBS players are Black.

To advance and build collaboration to achieve the equity goals highlighted in its report, the Knight Commission is announcing that it will offer $100,000 in multi-year Challenge grants to fund research that demonstrates how specific interventions impact the Black athlete experience and/or Black athlete advocacy areas. The Commission plans to award grant recipients who exhibit a partnership between researchers and athletics department administrators. The grants will be directed towards NCAA Division I, II or III institutions. More information on this program will be available on

About the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics

The Knight Commission, founded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in 1989, is an independent group that leads transformational change to prioritize college athletes’ education, health, safety and success. 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. In 2020, the Commission developed principles to guide new NIL rules, which have been influential in shaping the new system, and also proposed major governance changes in its Transforming the NCAA D-I Model report. The Commission also provides financial data about Division I college sports to enhance financial transparency and accountability. For more, visit

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


“We commend the Knight Commission on the release of its Achieving Racial Equity in College Sports report. This publication makes clear that college athletics and higher education at large have much work to do in order to achieve true equality for minority student-athletes, coaches and administrators. The contents of the Knight Commission’s report should be required reading for all of higher education, and its thoughtful, action-oriented recommendations offer a framework for progress on the critical topics of diversity and inclusion.”

– Tommy Amaker, head men’s basketball coach, Harvard University, and co-chair, National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) Committee on Racial Reconciliation; and Craig Robinson, Executive Director, NABC

“We thank those at the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics for their work and the release of their latest report, “Achieving Racial Equity in College Sports.” This broad effort focused on diversity, equity and inclusion at the college level is much-needed, and particularly heartening are the specific steps aimed toward improving the college sport landscape. Our work at the Global Sport Institute is inherently aligned, particularly with our initiatives to focus on athlete education, increase opportunities for promotion and development, and take a deeper look at the hiring and firing patterns of college leadership at the highest levels. Through our Field Studies series, we examine these pathways and “pipelines” for Power 5 football coaches and NCAA athletic directors, with even more sports sectors to come. To add to our collective impact, we plan to grow this work even further with best practices and action items gleaned from our research. Insights like those from the Knight Commission help move us toward our shared goals of greater equity in sport.”

– Kenneth L. Shropshire, CEO, Global Sport Institute

Read the full report, “Achieving Racial Equity in College Sports,” here