For the last 25 years, the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics has pushed for college athletics programs in the U.S. to operate in accord with the mission of higher education. A number of the Commission’s recommendations have been adopted by the NCAA, the national governing body of college sports. But new challenges are emerging, particularly as broadcast contracts for college football and men’s basketball bring hundreds of millions of dollars to schools and conferences (for instance, ESPN paid $7.3 billion for rights to the new College Football Playoff over the next twelve years). In this interview, the Knight Commission’s executive director, Amy Perko, discusses the negative effects of this surge of media money and the need for schools to reclaim control of their athletics programs.  

 

(Jeff Mayer/Flickr)

(Jeff Mayer/Flickr)

 

Amy, before joining the Knight Commission in 2005, you worked for a number of years with the NCAA. In recent years, the NCAA has come under constant fire as being an ineffectual organization – an organization that is perhaps even on its last legs. Is the NCAA still a legitimate institution?

Yes, I think the NCAA is a legitimate institution. More than 1000 schools are members of the NCAA, and they have shown strong agreement that they want to have a broad association that is focused on providing educational opportunities through sport.

I do believe that the NCAA’s effectiveness has diminished in recent years, and that there needs to be stronger leadership in taking actions that align with the principles of the NCAA. I think that the creation of the College Football Playoff will create a new dynamic that might diminish the NCAA’s authority even more in the future. Even before the playoff was launched, the Knight Commission raised concerns about college football being half-in and half-out of the NCAA, since more than $500 million in annual pay-outs generated by the playoff are being held outside of the NCAA. Those revenues do not support some of the NCAA’s national initiatives, particularly those related to concussions and other issues that directly impact college football players. Unfortunately, at this point issues like these are being ignored, because they’re very difficult to work out.

 

You said that the effectiveness of the NCAA has been diminished. Which of the stakeholders in major college sports has been most responsible for this decline in the NCAA’s authority – the major football conferences, the universities themselves, or the media corporations?

I think it’s a combination of all those. Time and time again, universities have been unable to walk away from more money, even when it means running up against creating a better balance of time demands on athletes. We keep seeing those demands increase. The seasons lengthen; the number of games increases. In all cases, those decisions are made for money, not to improve the athletes’ experience.

There is no disagreement with the principles that should be driving the decisions, the principles that should be in place for an association that is supposed to provide educational opportunities to students through sports. The problem is that the policies and the financial incentives in college sports don’t line up with those principles.

 

Do the media corporations that profit from college sports agree with those principles? In other words, can any reform in college sports be accomplished without the cooperation of the media corporations that broadcast those sports?

Certainly, the media companies do not control the policies. In some cases, conference officials, NCAA leaders, and others may have to leave some money on the table in order to maintain control over the schedule and the game times. We’ve seen in some conferences the schedules put together by the media companies have put burdens on particular teams and athletes. So yes, too much power has been ceded to the media companies, with decisions made that directly impact the lives and experiences of athletes on campus. Those are the kinds of decisions that need to be controlled on campus by officials who have an obligation to provide that balance to athletes.

 

Tell us about the proposal forwarded by the Knight Commission, that money coming from the broadcast rights be used as a financial incentive to bring positive change in college sports.

One of the principles that the Commission has emphasized is that financial incentives have to be aligned with the values that presidents and conference commissioners and athletic directors all agree are the most important. The NCAA men’s basketball tournament has a payout of more than $700 million every year – money that goes back to the institutions. Forty per cent of that money is based on wins in the basketball tournament. The Knight Commission has proposed that this amount be cut by half, at a minimum, and that the money be allocated to institutions according to the achievement of academic outcomes.

Another example is the College Football Playoff. The incentives in the playoff are tied directly to performance on the field. The Commission has proposed that there be a revenue-distribution formula for the playoff’s $500 million annual payout that aligns with the values that we all say are important, like providing broad-based educational opportunities.

 

Coaches in men’s basketball and football earn millions of dollars a year in salaries and incentives. Are they demonstrating enough responsibility as employees of institutions of higher education, and presumably educators themselves?

One of the changes that I personally would like to see – and this is not something the Knight Commission has taken on at this point – is to have more done with the expectation of coaches as educators. As we all know, coaches play a central role in the lives of athletes. I’m a former college athlete, and coaches were central to my experience. I believe coaches are really hungry for more tools that will help them to be successful, but the NCAA does not have any type of structured system for providing professional development or educational opportunities for coaches. Certainly, coaches’ associations provide that. But there is no structure that rewards institutions or coaches for achieving certain levels of professional certification. I would like to see something put in place to resolve that issue.

We need to be talking about these types of innovative, professional development programs as we look for ways to use new revenues to strengthen the educational mission of college sports, instead of spending more money on extravagant facilities and locker rooms.

 

There has been an increase in spending by major sports programs – for things such as locker rooms and coaches’ salaries. This has led some to argue that these programs are unsustainable. Other economists argue that revenue is also increasing; therefore, college sports does not have a sustainability problem. What is your view on this debate and the long-term financial health of college sports?

Athletics programs will always be sustainable to the extent the universities are willing to support them. We know that three-quarters of Division I schools rely on institutional support to balance their athletics budgets. So the massive increase in revenues generated by new media deals is flowing primarily to the benefit of 65 schools in five conferences. The other schools will continue to rely on institutional support to fund their athletics programs. The Knight Commission has always believed that this institutional support is appropriate, because we believe in the role that athletics programs have on university campuses. The concern has been about the rate of growth in athletic spending compared to academic budgets on campuses.

The Knight Commission has been tracking the spending trends with its athletic and academic spending database for Division I schools. The trends show that in every Division I subdivision (Football Bowl Subdivision, Football Championship Subdivision, and schools without football), athletic spending is growing at a faster rate than academic spending on a per capita basis. In the Football Bowl Subdivision alone, academic spending grew just six percent per student, adjusted for inflation, between 2005-2012. Over the same time period, football spending per football player grew 76 percent – and that’s even without accounting for athletic scholarships.

 

Kansas State football coach Bill Snyder said in an interview earlier this year that college sports, especially football, have sold out. Snyder said, “The concept of college football no longer has any bearing on the quality of the person, the quality of students. Universities are selling themselves out.” Do you find that Snyder’s view is shared by others in leadership positions in college sports, who might not admit it publicly. Or was he unique in simply holding this view?

I don’t think Snyder is exceptional in holding that view. His comment certainly carries significance because of all he’s accomplished as a coach and a leader in the sport that has been driving so many changes on campuses.

The concern we have is that there are so many leaders who have articulated concerns but are not willing to make changes to the way the money flows. That’s disappointing on a number of levels, and ultimately, it’s putting at risk an enterprise that is treasured by the American public. These leaders are unwilling to put some policy initiatives on the table that, in the short run, might mean less money for their conference or institution – although not significantly less money – but in the long run may help preserve opportunities for education through sport. It’s time for leaders to put conference self-interest aside and come together to find some common solutions.

 

Amy Perko is executive director of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. She earned All-ACC and CoSIDA Academic All-America honors as a basketball player at Wake Forest University, and has served in various leadership positions in collegiate and professional sports, for institutions such as the NCAA, U.S. Tennis Association, and the NBA.