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The Knight Commission: What Does this Mean?

Written by Casimir Moninghoff

December 19, 2020

In April the NCAA Board of Governors officially supported the idea of a rule change that would allow student-athletes to make money based on their image and likeness. This does not mean they will get paid to play. It also does not mean that anything has changed as of it, but it was a step in the right direction that they supported this idea. Now the NCAA is supposed to be researching and discussing the specifics of a rule change that would take place in the Fall of 2021 athletic season.

Having completed my Masters Thesis regarding this issue, I am familiar with the Knight Commission. No, it is not the Bobby Knight Commission where people learn how to throw chairs 94 feet. The Commission was founded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and chaired, in 1989, by the late and former President of the University of Notre Dame Theodore Hesburgh and the late and former President of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It is currently composed of current and former university presidents and chancellors, university trustees, former college athletes, and nationally regarded thought leaders with ties/involvement to in higher education or college sports. The purpose of the Commission is to “strengthen academic standards and improve athletic governance”.

Their intentions are positive and they push the boundaries of being comfortable with collegiate athletics. In 1991 they released a report titled: Keeping Faith with the Student-Athlete: A New Model for Intercollegiate Athletics. This was the foundation for the Commission. Their primiary focus was on the student-athlete, but they also wanted to improve the quality of the college experience for every student. Here they introduced their “one plus- three model” for instutional reform and made numerous recommendations to the NCAA in order to address issues of corruption and a lack of concern for student-athletes well -being.

A New Model for Intercollegiate Athletics

The first reform was for the President of each University to be in charge, but also held accountable for any abuses of power that occured under their watch. Presidents could hire, fire, and were in control of the finances. They would be supported by trustees, alumni, and any boosters of the institution. “No-pass, No-play rules” were recommended along with maintaining a new level of grades for each semester, and new graduation rate standards. Finally, athletic departments would not independently of the university. All of the money generated by athletics was to be sent through the university as a whole and distrubted as the school as the President decides.

Among other reforms, in order to be eligible for competitons in the coming year, each school would have to re-certify that they had met academic and financial requirements during the previous year. To the dismay of the Commission, half 53 of the 106 NCAA colleges and universities with football programs were the subject of sanctions in the 1980s. That is a real problem if we as a society and the NCAA value collegiate athletics, education, and more importantly the growth and devlopment of student-athletes as men and women as something that should be taken seriously.

The “One-Plus-Three Model”

The “One”

  1. Trustees should explicitly endorse and reaffirm presidental authority in all matters of athletic governance.
  2. Presidents should act on their obligations to control conferences. They should exercise their voting power, define agendas, and bring motions in order to enact change when needed.
  3. Presidents should control the NCAA.
  4. Presidents should commit their institutions to equity in all aspects of intercollegiate athletics.
  5. Presidents should control their institution’s involvement with commercial television.

The “Three”

  1. Academic Integrity – student-athletes should spend more time on their classes than the 30 hours a week on athletics and have completed 50% of their degree by year three. LOIs (Letters of Intent) should serve student-athletes, which means they should not be stuck at that particular university and be able to leave except to follow a coach to a new institution. Graduation rates should be a part of being certified to participate in NCAA compeition.
  2. Financial Integrity – Costs have far exceeded revenue: boosters should be held accountable and in check, athletic department costs should be decreased: scholarships, salaries, coaching staff. A new revenue-sharing plan should be discussed.
  3. Certification – Institutions should review/audit their athletic departments. Certification should ensure the major themes within are met.

The goal with this first public recommendation was to ensure the NCAA was holding true to their values and put the student-athlete at the forefront of importance when it comes to decision-making instead of money and winning.

In 1992, the Commission saw a number of their reforms implemented by the NCAA. While some were not, presidental control over coaches’ salaries and involvement in the NCAA were seen. Academic standards were implemented: Completion percentages based on time at an institution were set, transfer student requirements, and GPA requirments were set.

In 1993, the Knight Commission provided their final thoughts and comments on the NCAA on reforms. Clearly their previous recommendations were taken seriously by the NCAA and the public agreed as 52% of Americans saw big-time collegiate athletics as “out of control”. That figure was previously 78% at the time the Commission was founded. However, 52% of people believing their are big problems in collegiate sports is still an issue. Costs were and are still an issue, boosters and recruiting violations still occur at an unacceptable rate, and gender equity still needs to be at the forefront of the NCAA’s priorities. Progress was made, but that does not mean that the job is finished. Things can always be better and that has been the goal ever since.

That brings us to 2019, when the NCAA announced the Federal and State Legislation Working Group to investigate state and federal solutions to student-athletes using their name, image, and likeness for making personal revenue. Similar to what I would suggest, they stated the NCAA should make changes to their bylaws and other policies. The goal is to ensure that student-athletes are not employees of the institution, boosters are not involved, and that there is no payment to play involved in these transactions. Famously, as we saw in the Ed O’ Bannon case, this is the issue that caused the famous NCAA videogame franchise to stop production. Ed O’ Bannon saw himself in a video game years later and realized this was not right and that he is entitled to some of the pie. After all, they are using his face and name for money. The Working Group recommended that Congress create a federal name, image, and likeness law that would cover all 50 states to go along with NCAA policy changes. At the moment, some states, including California, have worked to pass their own law to allow student-athletes in California to make money. The issue is that a state law regarding student-athletes such as this is not over-riding the current precedent set, Federal laws, or the NCAA. The NCAA could not allow those institutions to compete in their games, which they have threatened.

The NCAA Bylaws regarding this topic state that any student-athlete will lose their eligibility if they “accept any remuneration for or permits the use of his or her name or picture to advertise, recommend or promote directly the sale or use of a commercial product or service of any kind; or Receives remuneration for endorsing a commercial product or service through the individual’s use of such product or service”. They also state that the student-athlete is responsible for stopping the distribution of unauthorized products using their name, image, and likeness even if the individual does not know this is occurring. The bylaws conclude stating that the NCAA is allowed to use the student-athlete’s name, image, and likeness, and that joining the NCAA as a student-athlete is personally allowing the NCAA to do that in the first place. Personally, that is insane, but also feels like an easy fix. I would strike some of these bylaws all together. A student-athlete should be able to make money using their name, image, and likeness. They should also not have to stop something that they have no knowledge of or be penalized even though they did not know about such activities. Student-athletes are enrolled as students and then athletes. They are not on campus to be investigators of other students or agencies to see if they are using them to make money.

The Knight Commission stated that, in April of 2020, their must be precautions put in place to protect student-athletes. The biggest of which involves ensuring that fair-market value is received for the service provided by the student-athlete. Simply because they need money or are younger does not mean they should be taken advantage of. In order to protect the institutions and NCAA, they state that logos and trademarks of the schools should not be used in addition to the name, image, and likeness of the student-athlete.

That brings us to about two weeks after the Knight Commission made its most recent announcement of recommendations to the NCAA, and they were intense. They recommend that only NCAA Football at the FBS level, which is your Power 5, Group of 5, and Independents, split from the NCAA entirely and create their own group called the NCFA (National College Football Association). When I first read this, I was outraged. I have been researching this for years and I am about to go to the University of Arkansas in Fall of 2021 to continue my research, and they wanted to blow it all up and re-invent the wheel. So I waited a day, researched every inch of this article and its data to see what exactly they want to do.

Let’s start with revenue distribution. Last year, the College Football Playoff distributed 79.3% of its revenue to the Power 5 and Notre Dame. That was $366.85 million dollars. 19.8 % ($91.4 million dollars) went to the Group of 5 conferences. 0.3% ($1.55 million dollars) went to FBS independents. 0.6% ($2.63 million dollars) went to FCS conferences. This is quite a disparity. The Power 5 and Notre Dame get almost of the revenue generated from the Playoff, because they are the main players in the CFP. Still, one would think that the pie is split a little more evenly. Similar to how conferences distribute revenue, except this would be across all of college football or at least Division I. That is not the case.

The Knight Commission used the example of 2016/2017 CFP revenue distribution to show what they would recommend. During that year, this was the distribution of revenue: 58.3% ($255.8 million dollars) to the Power 5 Conferences. 14.9% ($65.6 million dollars) to the Group of 5 Conferences. 10.9% ($48 million dollars) were football performance bonuses. 8.8% ($38.4 million dollars) were academic performances bonuses. 5.9 % ($25.92 million dollars) were expense reimbursements. 0.6% ($2.53 million dollars) went to Notre Dame (excluding the academic bonus). The final 0.6% ($2.43 million dollars) went to qualifying FCS Conferences. The Commission recommended these changes using those numbers: Decreasing the football performance bonsus to $28.8 million dollars, which is an 8.8% reduction. A new National Health and Safety Program and Research for football of 1.2 % ($5.22 million dollars), and new programs to improve diversity in football coaching leadership of 1% ($4.38 million dollars). As the Knight Commission has stated, their mission is to serve the student-athlete and the collegiate community, and these recommendations to improve diversity in college coaching and institute new health and safety programs is a fantastic way to distribute funds of the CFP instead of making it solely about performances and making the CFP.

The Commissions’s own report shows that 22% of the revenue generated goes to student-athlete aid, but sees a majority of that revenue, 36%, go to compensation. My recommendation, along with one recommendation by the Commission would be to decrease salaries in order to spread that money to other areas with student-athlete aid being a major area. However, the Knight Commission has taken this a step further. Something I learned in researching this article is that the champion crowned in college football is not associated with the NCAA. In 1988, NCAA institutions approved a resolution that discontinued consideration of possible NCAA Division I football championships. In 1991, the NCAA approved a new revenue sharing distribution formula that saw more money go to Division I FBS institutions with football despite the decision made in 1988 that, again, sees the champion crowned not by the NCAA. Instead, the national champion has been crowned since 1998 by the BCS and CFP, not the NCAA. Due to this, the Knight Commission has made the recommendation that all FBS institutions with college football separate themselves entirely from the NCAA and create their own association. This was made despite the fact that, “42% of the respondents to a survey indicated that they would be unlikely to support a separate structure for FBS football only”.

One of the main reasons for this recommendation goes back to the Commissions initial mission to decrease and curb crazy over-spending. The NCAA reported that median generated revenues rose 47 percent during the last 15 years but expenses grew nearly twice as fast, jumping 92 percent. Institutions in the Group of 5 rely heavily on institutional support to fund their athletics budgets and this sets a huge burden on those institutions. On the other side of that 42%, more than 80% of the FCS institutions and Division I institutions without football support reform measures for the NCAA. The NCAA is not only FBS football, so their input absolutely matters. The question is, does this make sense? According to the Knight Commission, having FBS football separate itself would free up $60 million dollars in revenue that could be spread to institutions who normally receive less of the pie: Group of 5 institutions and Division I schools without football. This would also see a few current FBS level programs revert back to FCS programs in football becuase they would not be able to meet the requirements or handle the cost of staying in the new NCFA. All revenue generated by the NCFA would stay within those institutions and there would be no confusion on rules and requirements. They could solve name, image, and likeness issue, create better healthcare and student-aid programs, there would be a certified National Champion, and expansion discussions would be finalized as well.

Seeing those issues solved and the National Champion be decided by the association that a team plays for would be incredible and positive. I just disagree with how to get there. As stated before, changing the Bylaws would solve the name, image, and likeness problem. The NCAA could easily have FBS football fall under their jurisdicsition when it comes to the National Championship, they would need to have the CFP fall under their umbrella and that should not be too difficult. This year should show many schools that despite being at the FBS level, they will probably not compete for a championship and thus remaining or reverting to FCS compeition may be best. It seems that the Knight Commission is trying to re-invent the wheel.

Currently, there are at least 3 bills in Congress looking to address the issue of student-athlete name, image, and likeness and the benefits of student-athletes in general. This June, Senator Marco Rubio introduced the “Fairness in Collegiate Athletics Act“. The Act states that no later than June 30, 2021, student-athletes can make money using their name, image, and likeness. Student-athletes will be protected by the Sports Agent Responsibility and Trust Act so that they may remain amateurs and prevent any illegitimate activity from occuring.

In September, House member Anthony Gonzalez introduced the “Student-Athlete Level Playing Field Act“. It states that student-athletes are not able to enter into endorsements for

  1. Adult entertainment
  2. Alcohol and Tobacco
  3. Casinos/gambling
  4. Marijuana dispensaries

They may be told to not wear apparel that they advertised when it comes to athletic competition or university sponsored events. The protection comes from the Sports Agent Responsibility and Trust Act.

The final bill is from Senator Cory Booker and Senator Blumenthal. There is no text at the moment as the bill was just introduced this week. However, that is the link where the official bill will be located. According to ESPN, the senators are looking to establish new health and safety protocols, set up a fund for current and former athletes for medical expesnes (similar to the NFL concussion fund), see revenue sharing between institutions and student-athletes, and lifetime scholarships for student-athletes in good academic standing. While progressive, I do believe that is a bit ambitious. I do not see many Republicans and even a couple Democrats agreeing to the revenue sharing with student-athletes porition of the bill.

We are seeing a progressive push from both sides of the aisle to solve these issues as we can all agree that the NCAA has dragged its feet when it comes to problem solving. These bills, and even recent decisions from the NCAA to hold bubble for the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments shows that the pressure is working and I believe that now is not the time to blow up the NCAA and take FBS football out and create an entirely new agency. The pressure put on the NCAA and this recent decision shows that they will make decisions that put the student-athlete first as the Commission wants to see. The Knight Commission has helped shape the NCAA we know today and we saw and continue to see academic improvements. As the Knight Commission stated in their initial report, we do not accept cheaters or abusers in any other aspect of life and if that is the case, how can we accept cheating or abuse in sports. Fundamentally, I agree with this statement, and many others have and still do. That is why we have seen the improvements and changes from the Knight Commission and the NCAA. Clearly, the NCAA values the Knight Commission and their recommendations and it remains to be seen what the NCAA will decide when it comes to this most recent report. They are scheduled to make a decision or be pressured into one no later than next summer, and I am hopeful that we will at least see an established framework from the NCAA that will allow Division I athletes to make money based on the use of the name, image, and likeness. I believe we should continue to push for better health and safety protocols. Those will get lost in any decision revolivng around the use of name, image, and likeness. I also believe any decision involving student-athletes using their name, image, and likeness should include the entirety of NCAA student-athletes. Any student-athlete should be allowed to enter into the same type of contract. It should not be limited to football and basketball players. 2020 is almost over and the next 6 months are extremely important. I am hopeful that we will see these changes in our lifetime and it will be on our generation to ensure that progress continues so we can see collegiate athletics reach even greater heights and more importantly student-athletes become even better individuals.

Featured Image Via: The Knight Commission

Follow me on Twitter: @CaseyMoninghoff

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