July 25, 2021

The Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics first convened in 1990 after a decade on which big-time college sports had been rocked by recruiting and academic scandals. After six years of peering under rocks and poking around in some very dark corners, the commission disbanded after convincing the NCAA to adopt reforms that promised the return of athletic and academic integrity and the restoration of public confidence.

It was no great surprise that the commission, a project of the esteemed John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, announced last summer than it would take a second look Given the testimony it heard this week, it was long overdue: After some improvement following the 1996 reforms, graduation rates among scholarship athletes have stagnated in most sports, actually declined in football; recruiting violations are surging; the coaching revolving door is back in full swing; more and more student-athletes were majoring in nothing but eligibility and, if graduating, doing so with worthless degrees.

The 1996 reforms were based upon the commission’s “one-plus-three” proposal. One was increased control by college and university presidents over athletic programs, the three were academic integrity, financial integrity and independent certification. As with most reform, it worked only as well as the individual schools wanted it to. Some presidents have been successful in reigning in errant programs, but others still cower before sports-mad trustees and fans. Integrity – academic and financial – cannot be imposed; coaches, athletes, alumni and fans must embrace it. Independent certification is only as good as the information the schools provide.

It is telling that the co-chairmen of the 2000 commission are the same as in 1990 – William C. Friday, president emeritus of the University of North Carolina, and the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, president emeritus for the University of Notre Dame. Such schools, schools that combine athletic and academic excellence, have never been the problem.

The problem, according the NCAA, is that too many other schools see the reforms as obstacles to be dodged rather than as standards to meet. That no doubt is true, but the NCAA itself also remains part of the problem.

It is sadly ironic, for example, that at the same time the NCAA was adopting the 1996 reforms it also was initiating its Bowl Championship Series for football. While the BCS does guarantee a season-ending game between the two top-ranked teams, it has greatly increased the pressure to win, to be among the elite eight teams that get BCS games. In the last few weeks there have been several games in which as much as $12 million in BCS revenue hung in the balance – there is no even remotely similar inducement for the coach who encourages his star wide receiver to take challenging courses and to get a real degree.

The commission will not issue its final recommendations until sometime next year; it is for now still gathering information. Based upon the testimony gathered at the three hearings so far, though, it does appear that the 2001 report will be less narrowly focused upon NCAA rules and take a broader look at how low standards damage overall undergraduate learning nd school reputations, the true cost to taxpayers of high-profile athletic/low-achieving academic programs, and the effect the overemphasis on those programs can have upon the educational aspirations of high school and junior-high students. It is a look worth taking.

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