Splitting FBS football from the NCAA is not the bold, transformational change college athletics needs
The Knight Commission's big, bold plan isn't big, bold, or even particularly likely to happen.
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Okay. That’s enough of that. Let’s talk about college athletics reform.
Back in October, I wrote about how there’s a real desire for deep, meaningful reforms in college athletics….as long as the reforms are mostly somebody else’s problem.
The Knight Commission, perhaps the most prominent name in college athletics reform outside of the NCAA, has been working for months on an ambitious report on potential college athletics reforms. They surveyed dozens of university presidents, athletic directors, conference commissioners and a slew of other leaders in college athletics, and found widespread discontent with the status quo.
But when you popped open the hood and looked at the responses carefully, I didn’t see a demand for very specific reforms. Instead, the smaller schools generally preferred policies that would most dramatically impact the larger schools, and the larger schools preferred policies that would still allow them to retain power, influence and money. The few policies that did appear to have broader-based appeal are mostly good ideas (geographically oriented conferences! Letting D-II schools play up a level in single sports!), but would hardly fall into the transformational change category.
That data set did not make me especially optimistic that transformative changes to the status quo were particularly likely. It’s great that almost everybody agrees there is a problem, but that’s still a long way from actually doing something about it. But hey, the October data wasn’t the final set in the report. Perhaps the Knight Commission had bigger, bolder ideas?
Well, now that they’ve completed their report, I think the answer is no.
The final report has three major recommendations for college athletics. The first is the one you’ve probably heard of at this point, moving FBS football out of the NCAA entirely, and into a completely new organization, tentatively called the National College Football Association. We’ll get back to this idea in a second.
Big idea number two? Establish a new governance system for every single other sport, with each conference having equal voting rights. That would mean that smaller conferences, as a collective, would have substantially more legislative power than larger conferences.
Big idea number three? Everybody agrees to follow these ten principles:
Outside of a vague commitment to improving the representation of actual athletes in governing bodies, and a commitment to allowing athletes to take advantage of their NIL (something that the NCAA already agreed to do), there’s basically nothing on this list that would feel out of place in any press release from say, 1940 onward. These principles could just as easily be in response to the 1929 Carnegie Report.
Absent of any hard and specific recommendation, these are just empty platitudes, stuff that should already be on the books, and has been on the books for decades. It isn’t going to change because Arne Duncan put it on a Powerpoint slide.
I can see how the NCAA benefits from these changes. It’s hard to see how anybody really does. So they’re probably not happening.
Right now, the NCAA doesn’t make any money from FBS football. They don’t run the College Football Playoff. But they do handle most of the administrative work to support FBS football. They still run enforcement. They do research studies. They do investigations.
So if FBS football was completely administered by another entity, hey, the NCAA saves money and time. Maybe that trickles down to member institutions, maybe not. But I can see the appeal!
For the FBS schools? I think the argument here is that moving from the NCAA would give them legislative autonomy, but the P5 schools basically already have that. If FBS schools were suddenly given even more gatekeeping powers, there’s good reason to think that Texas and Ohio State will have even greater rulemaking power than Texas State and Ohio. It’s hard to see the major appeal for a G5 school…who wants to risk getting kicked out of FBS?
This idea just isn’t popular right now, and the Knight Commission’s own data backs me up here. Back in October, only 23% of respondents from P5 institutions said they’d support FBS football leaving the NCAA, and only 37% of G5 respondents said they’d support it. Those are terrible numbers. If less than a quarter of P5 power-brokers think it’s a good idea right off the bat, there’s no legislative juice to make it happen.
There’s reason to be skeptical it would even help non-football schools that much
Again, going back to the actual survey data, a majority of non-football respondents and FCS respondents admitted that they spend more than they should in order to compete with higher resourced schools in basketball. If you kick FBS out of the NCAA, but keep the D-1 structure exactly the same for men’s and women’s basketball, the forces that encourage schools to overspend in a futile attempt to keep pace with larger schools will continue.
As long as the NCAA uses a model that forces the world to pretend that Illinois and Illinois State are similar institutions competing at a similar level for shared championships, the Illinois States of the world will continue to face significant pressures to spend money they shouldn’t to chase goals they can’t possibly achieve — an outcome that everybody involves seems to agree is a bad idea!
The resource gap is the problem, not who pays for the administrative costs of the sport
I’m not saying the NCAA Tournament needs to be canceled or anything. The Men’s and Women’s Tournaments are popular and successful events, in large part because they involve everybody. The NCAA Tournament is accessible and engaging in a way that the regular season isn’t precisely because the Big Sky and the NEC and the Southland are involved. Ditching the entire thing to create the Power Five, Big East and Special Musical Guest Gonzaga Invitational would create a worse product for fans, and probably athletes too.
But based on this survey data, the current governance model doesn’t seem to be working either. Setting football aside, the revenue disparities in D-1 on just a basketball level are absolutely massive, and they’re only going to grow larger. The pressures for additional legislative independence will only grow. Keeping schools with $20 million dollar budgets and $200 million dollar budgets in the same competitive class is not producing positive outcomes.
If addressing that disparity isn’t on the table, either through competitive classification reform or cost controls, then it’s hard to see what reforms are possible that would lead to improved financial outcomes or improved governance.
If you really want bold and transformative athletics change, focus on the dang athletes.
That’s what this entire everything is about, right?
I don’t think anybody involved with the Knight Commission is a bad person or ill intent when working on this project or anything, but my takeaway from those media calls and PDFs is that these reports are primarily built around administrative concerns.
If we’ve learned anything from college athletics and COVID, it ought to be that a renewed focus on improving athlete welfare and outcomes should be even more important.
The #1 stated principle listed by the Knight Commission is that college athletic governance entities should “Prioritize college athletes’ education, health, safety and success.”
Does treating college athletes like essential employees during a pandemic count as prioritizing their education, health and safety? Does moving them across state lines so they can continue to compete when local public health regulation prohibits competition prioritize their education, health, and safety? What meaningful consequences do institutions, or even individual actors, face if they take actions that do not prioritize education, health and safety? Are schools prepared to make decisions that cost them money and athletic prestige in the name of education, health and safety?
I’m not expecting the Knight Commission to come out in favor of unionization, an athlete Bill of Rights, and banishment of offending programs. This is about as establishment as a college athletics reform organization can be.
But I look at this report, a report created to address real problems, with real urgency, and I see a lack of imagination. I see proposals that essentially already exist with no meaningful enforcement or that stand almost no chance of becoming reality. I don’t see proposals that would have an immediate impact on athlete well-being, or resource disparity or institutional unity, or even to improve the quality of the product.
From talking to folks around the industry, I believe that now is the time to advocate for substantial changes. There’s widespread acknowledgment, from the biggest programs to the smallest ones, that the current status quo does not incentivize good outcomes.
But if bold action is required, propose something that’s actually bold, not pablum. And then don’t let that proposal die in a PDF. Advocate for it. Push for it. Fight for it.
Bold action is not a repackaged status quo, only slightly warmer and fuzzier. To me, that’s what this is. The moment demands better.
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