Last week saw non-stop coverage of the Gulf Oil Spill on news channels, and had the World Cup and U.S. Open dominating the sports world.  Amidst that crowded backdrop, a significant Knight Commission report on the future of sports and higher education received scant attention.  The report deserves a closer look and, in my view, our support.

The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics is a project of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.  Eighteen months ago, the commission began an investigation of college sports, which culminated last week in the release of “Restoring the Balance: Dollars, Values and the Future of College Sports.”

While conference realignments have been grabbing headlines in recent weeks, the Knight Commission tried to look at the bigger picture, and to address the fundamental issues faced by schools during an era of escalating athletics spending, shrinking state higher ed subsidies and vacillating performance by university endowment funds as the stock market ebbs and flows.

The Knight Commission examined the broad spectrum of college sports, but it placed a magnifying glass in particular over the schools which make up what is known as the “Football Bowl Subdivision,” (FBS).  The public institutions in the FBS were found to have grown median spending in athletics during the period of 2005 – 2008 at a rate of nearly 38 percent, while median academic spending during the same timeframe advanced only 20 percent.  Looked at another way, the growth in athletic dollars spent was almost twice the growth rate of academic expenditures.

While either side of the spending coin had to grow much at all during a time of negligible inflation is probably best left to a column for another day.  But spending on athletics must be examined closely each and every day, and there is no better time than now for the Knight Commission to release the numbers which, in some cases, are staggering.

For instance, according to the commission report, the ten FBS public institutions spending the most on college sports are on pace to spend more than $250 million annually, on average, in 2020.  At these same schools, median spending per athlete ranges from four to nearly eleven times more than the academic spending per student.

To address these troubling patterns, the Knight Commission offers three general principles for strengthened accountability in intercollegiate athletics.  These are:

  1. Requiring public transparency of financial reporting, including better measures to compare athletic spending to academic spending;
  2. Rewarding practices that make academic values a priority; and
  3. Treating athletes first and foremost as students, and not as pseudo-professionals.

Around these principals, the Knight Commission makes several recommendations, including:

  1. Making public the financial reports filed by each institution with the NCAA;
  2. Withdrawing championship eligibility for teams, in any sport, not on track to graduate at least half of their athletes;
  3. Tying revenue distribution more closely to academic values:
  4. Examining scholarship practices and, in some cases, decreasing the number made available, such as in football at FBS schools;
  5. Limiting the number of non-coaching personnel tied to specific sports; and
  6. Reducing the length of some seasons, as well as the number of events in some sports.

Although the Knight Commission includes a number of distinguished higher education leaders, and it is co-chaired by the chancellor of the University of Maryland System and the president of Southern Methodist University, respectively, its recommendations will not gain traction without public support.  In this instance, the most important segment of the “public” consists of us, tuition-paying parents.

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