A report from the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics 15 years ago urged the NCAA to reduce time demands on college athletes and reward schools not just for their athletic performance but for meeting academic expectations. Many sports reporters, NCAA Division I administrators, and coaches thought the proposals naïve. Today, those reform recommendations are being realized.
NCAA conferences and universities delayed acting on these critical reforms for years, while the pressure to radically reorder college sports mounted, with attempts to unionize college athletes and lawsuits to allow men’s basketball and football players to become pay-for-play athletes. Fueling these challenges is the notion that college sports are driven by commercial goals instead of their educational mission. That is one reason we are encouraged that the NCAA is taking action to reward colleges whose teams meet academic expectations and curb time pressures on college athletes.
Even so, the NCAA’s glacial pace of change is inadequate to meet the scope of the challenges facing Division I revenue sports — football and men’s basketball. To preserve the integrity of these sports, the NCAA must act far more quickly to adopt reforms that emphasize the paramount priority is educating and protecting the health and safety of college athletes — not using them to placate alumni donors or generate additional media contract revenues. Otherwise, change could be imposed from outside that could jeopardize the entire educational model of college sports.
Our guiding principle is that college sports’ primary goal is to provide student-athletes with educational opportunities — not to serve as an apprenticeship for a professional-sports career. Only a tiny percentage of college athletes in any sport will go on to careers as professional athletes. Even fewer will have a professional-sports career that lasts longer than the time they spent in college. For the great majority of college athletes, earning a college degree can make all the difference in expanding opportunity in their lives and careers.
It’s been a quarter-century since another one of our reports, "Keeping Faith With the Student Athlete," first urged that college and university presidents take control of college sports to advance athletes’ educational experiences and raise their graduation rates. Many of our proposed reforms have since been enacted — including requiring teams to graduate at least half of their players to be eligible for postseason competition.
Since 2001, the Knight Commission has urged the NCAA to change the way it divides up hundreds of millions of dollars from the March Madness men’s basketball tournament so that academic and not just athletic outcomes are rewarded. Currently, the NCAA assigns nearly 40 percent of the annual $550-million payout for March Madness based on the success of men’s basketball teams in the tournament, with no money awarded based on whether teams are meeting minimal academic outcomes.
Last week, the NCAA adopted a new approach, changing its revenue distribution plan for the first time in 25 years. The NCAA’s new plan will require for the first time that a portion of the annual increase in revenues generated through the NCAA March Madness media contract be rewarded to colleges whose sports teams meet academic-based criteria.
These new incentives will start in 2019-20, with awards to qualifying institutions from an "Academic Fund" of $12.6 million. Thanks to the $8.8-billion contract extension for broadcasting March Madness, and an accelerated growth plan for this new fund, more than $105 million in academic-based rewards will be available beginning in 2024-25.
We have strongly supported this shift as an important first step. With more money flowing in, it is even more critical to ensure educational values are supported by meaningful financial rewards — not just by words alone.
The NCAA is also giving belated attention to another longstanding Knight Commission concern — reducing the amount of time students are required to spend on sports-related obligations. More than 44,000 college athletes responded to an NCAA survey this year, saying they wanted rules that require more time off after travel from competitions, mandatory breaks from practice after the season is over, and mandatory eight-hour rest periods overnight between required practice or competition activities.
All leaders in Division I sports need to move with a greater sense of urgency to prioritize athletes’ education and provide them with appropriate health and safety protections. We know from the history of our own recommendations that the NCAA and college presidents can step up to do the right thing, even in the face of formidable commercial pressures. It’s not naïve to think that college sports can be reformed for the better.
Brit Kirwan, chancellor emeritus of the University System of Maryland, is chairman of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. Arne Duncan is a former U.S. secretary of education and serves as co-vice chair of the Knight Commission.