Knight Commission challenges university presidents to act on transformational reform of Division I sports

December 5, 2022

Washington, D.C.—At its winter meeting, the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics called on university presidents leading the NCAA Division I Board of Directors to act more urgently on “transformational reforms” it charged a special committee to design more than a year ago.

The Commission heard from representatives of the NCAA Division I Transformation Committee in a private session and received a public presentation from LEAD1, the association of Athletic Directors for Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) schools, about their respective efforts to transform and modernize Division I sports. The Commission commends LEAD1’s recognition that FBS football needs a new and different leadership structure and believes that their proposal should stimulate a broader discussion of FBS football governance by the NCAA Division I Board of Directors.

The Commission overall has been disappointed by both the pace, direction, and scope of the NCAA’s reform efforts as well as the ongoing failure of university presidents and commissioners who lead the College Football Playoff (CFP) organization to adopt critical reforms.

Knight Commission Co-Chair Arne Duncan said, “From what we heard, it seems clear the initiatives being considered by the Transformation Committee and by FBS Athletics Directors through the LEAD1 Association still do not tackle what is at the foundation of the broken governance and financial frameworks of Division I sports, particularly in FBS football.”

Among the foundational reforms that have not yet been addressed, the Commission highlighted that the NCAA still has not acted to correct its blatantly discriminatory formula for distributing March Madness revenues, which was reviewed extensively at the Commission’s May meeting. The NCAA’s formula awards $160 million based on the success of men’s basketball teams in the tournament but awards zero dollars based on the success of women’s teams. The 2021 NCAA-commissioned independent review of gender equity issues at the March Madness tournament by the firm Kaplan Hecker recommended a plan to eliminate the discriminatory performance-based payouts more than 500 days ago.

Co-chair Nancy Zimpher said, “Every university president on the Division I Board of Directors knows full well that discriminatory gender-based payouts are indefensible. And they know full well that big financial incentives inevitably reflect values and influence the priorities of Division I programs. This reform is within their full authority to change and to change now.”

Governance of FBS Football

In the discussion of FBS football governance, LEAD1 representatives presented the proposal it recommended to the NCAA Division I Board of Directors and the Division I Transformation Committee.

The proposal calls for a significant overhaul of FBS football governance by creating a new governing board and establishing a Chief Operating Officer for the sport – both additions within the NCAA structure.

The Commission commends LEAD1 for its recommendation to place four independent directors, including two former FBS athletes, on any new FBS Football Governing Board—a proposal that adopts the Commission’s 2020 recommendation for an independently-led governing board that includes current and former players.

Co-Chair Duncan said, “While some aspects of the LEAD1 proposal could improve FBS governance, the proposal fails to address the elephant of FBS reform, the role of the CFP and its soaring revenues.” With the CFP set to expand to 12 teams, the FBS football national championship could soon bring in $2 billion annually, double the revenues of the NCAA. These revenues are managed separately by a little-known private company that oversees the CFP, the CFP Administration LLC.

To date, the CFP has refused Knight Commission recommendations to add independent directors, including health and safety experts, and football players to its governing board. Just as critical, the CFP has been unwilling to earmark any portion of its revenues toward improving athlete health, safety, and well-being, or toward boosting diversity in FBS’s coaching ranks.

The Commission continues to call on the CFP to display greater financial transparency and reform by adopting the Commission’s 2021 proposed financial framework for shared athletics revenues or similar solutions. The Commission’s “Connecting Athletics Revenue to the Educational (C.A.R.E.) Model of College Sports” would ensure most shared revenues are connected to Division I’s core mission of supporting athletes’ education, health, safety, and well-being, instead of being spent on gaining competitive recruiting advantages, gilded athletic facilities and exorbitant coaching salaries and buyouts.

Dead money for FBS football coaches buyouts

The Commission  released an analysis of FBS football coaching buyouts at public institutions over the 2012-2021 decade, along with an updated look at buyouts of head football coaches at Power Five institutions during the last two seasons. The analysis found that Power Five programs are wasting staggering amounts of dollars in “dead money,” paying coaches not to coach, the FBS’s most vivid sign of financial dysfunction.

The amount of dead money payments in the FBS has tripled since the CFP began in fiscal 2015. In the past season and a half alone, through November 1 of this year, universities have fired 14 Power 5 head football coaches with combined contract buyouts of more than $150 million.

“If you think the problem of runaway spending on FBS coaches, athletic facilities, and buyouts are bad now, just wait until the CFP pays out four times as much to FBS institutions as it does today, with no strings attached,” said Co-Chair Len Elmore. “ADs and college presidents treat the CFP as a piggybank with unlimited Monopoly funny money– which is why it’s so important to completely overhaul the self-serving governance and financial model of the CFP before it expands.”

Membership changes

Several members of the Commission, all former university presidents or chancellors, are completing their terms of service on the Commission, having served two consecutive four-year terms and made invaluable contributions to the Commission’s work. They include co-chair Zimpher, and members Walt Harrison, Penny Kyle, and G.P. “Bud” Peterson.

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. Knight Foundation has been its sole funder to ensure its independence. For more information about the Commission’s impact, recommendations, and reports, 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


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