College Sports Needs New Leadership That Puts Athletes First

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Today’s guest columnist is Amy Privette Perko, CEO of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.

College sports was changed forever this summer. In June, actions in state legislatures, Congress and even the Supreme Court all hit the same, rare bipartisan note: Change the model of college sports to treat college athletes more fairly.

The Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in NCAA v. Alston struck down the NCAA’s authority to limit the educational benefits that schools provide to college athletes. A few short weeks later, on July 1, college athletes were allowed to earn compensation from non-institutional sources for the use of their Name, Image and Likeness (NIL). These new NIL opportunities, provisionally green-lit by the NCAA, were forced by laws in 14 states that would have started even without NCAA action.

Much of the future of athletes’ NIL rights remains unsettled due to the NCAA’s vague interim policy and variations between state laws, prompting the NCAA to ask Congress to provide clarity and uniformity.

Even with these landmark changes, comprehensive reform is overdue. The fact that lawmakers and the courts are forcing big changes underscores one overarching problem: The governance of college sports is not working. College sports leaders must put college athletes first, instead of clinging to the status quo and only making big changes when forced by others.

Here is a suggestion to speed reform by starting at the top: The NCAA Board of Governors and Division I Board of Directors should be led by a majority of independent directors, including former college athletes, to avoid self-interested maintenance of the existing model.

This is one of many recommendations made by the independent Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, which has a legacy of leading transformational change to prioritize college athletes’ education, health, safety and success.

The major problems that must be urgently addressed are grounded in two fundamental tenets of college sports. First, college athletes are also full-time college students. And second, the universities sponsoring these sports are nonprofit entities whose educational mission requires compliance with education-related laws like Title IX, which mandate that federally aided institutions provide equal sports opportunities to female and male students.

To maintain its educational foundations, university leaders must urgently adopt a series of far-reaching reforms, beginning with closing racial equity gaps for athletes in ways that the Knight Commission suggests in its recent report, “Achieving Racial Equity in College Sports.” The NCAA and its member universities must also address continued discrimination based on gender in national and campus operations. The fact that gender discrimination was on display at NCAA championships this year even as we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Title IX next year speaks volumes.

Meanwhile, the lucrative College Football Playoff (CFP), operated by an LLC independent of the NCAA, continues to escape accountability as a key driver of the accelerating disconnect between college sports and its educational mission. A new approach to the CFP’s governance—and more broadly to the sport of FBS football—is needed, especially with the CFP ready to expand, and its corresponding revenues likely to soar past the NCAA’s $1 billion annual budget.

As a start, the CFP should act on the Knight Commission’s call to include college football athletes in its governance. Football athletes deserve more than being polled as an afterthought to expansion proposals.

The CFP’s expansion process and its direct impact on football athletes should reopen consideration of the commission’s far-reaching proposal to create a new governance entity, separate from the NCAA, to oversee all aspects of football for CFP schools, including athletes’ health and safety. This proposed new governance would include football players.

Division I conferences must step up, too. As the primary entities distributing billions in media revenues to schools, conferences should require financial accountability and consider new measures like incentives for meeting targets in sport operating budgets, so that athletics revenues are used to support athletes first and foremost, instead of repeating past patterns of runaway spending on coaches and facilities. A key point to remember: The Supreme Court ruling only allows expanded athlete benefits; it doesn’t require them.

The core educational pillars of college sports inspired the Knight Commission’s founding in 1989 to address embarrassingly low graduation rates for football and basketball players. Despite having no rulemaking authority, the commission’s work led to major reforms that broke the status quo, including a standard that requires teams to be on track to graduate at least 50% of their players to be eligible for postseason glory.

That graduation threshold was labeled by critics as idealistic—a prominent basketball coach even told USA Today the idea was “completely nuts”—and it took the NCAA a decade to fully implement it. Another Knight Commission proposal—to change NCAA revenue distribution to reward academic outcomes, not just athletic ones—took the slow-moving NCAA 15 years to adopt.

Yet, the commission persisted, and today, these policies are considered integral to record-high graduation rates for college athletes.

Similarly, in 2008, before the landmark O’Bannon lawsuit was filed regarding the use of athletes’ likenesses in video games, and years before social media opportunities for athletes exploded, the commission challenged then-existing NIL rules and practices. The Knight Commission held the first-ever public national meeting on NIL issues with college athletes, sports leaders and legal experts, and made its position clear that it was unfair to allow third parties to benefit from using athletes’ NILs, while the athletes themselves could not be compensated. In April 2020, the commission recommended comprehensive principles to guide athletes’ NIL compensation.

As Congress considers possible legislation and university leaders consider how to conduct their programs in this new era, it is critical to see the Alston ruling and new NIL opportunities as only the first steps in truly transforming college sports to put college athletes first.

CEO of the Knight Commission since 2016 and executive director from 2005-16, Perko is a former college basketball player and member of the Wake Forest University Sports Hall of Fame.

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