The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics sent a letter to Mark Emmert’s attention (dated Dec. 16) citing the “substantial challenges [facing] NCAA member institutions, conferences, and college athletes in the highly commercial environment for Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) football and some NCAA Division I sports, particularly men’s basketball.” The watchdog group – which exists to promote reform that supports and strengthens the educational mission of college sports – seeks to gain a better understanding for how the NCAA’s shared revenues are distributed and how “FBS football impacts NCAA revenue distributions” (think: grants-in-aid, sports sponsorship, the Student Assistance Fund). The Commission is particularly concerned that more than 60% of $500 million plus that the NCAA distributes is “impacted by FBS football” and yet, it’s the only sport that does not bring in revenue for the organization. Co-chair Arne Duncan recently suggested that among the reforms the Knight Commission will consider is a spinoff of the “big-revenue athletic programs” (see: P5 football and basketball) from the remainder of college sports.
Howie Long-Short: Len Elmore – one of the ACC’s 50 greatest basketball players of all-time and a current professor at Columbia University – appreciates the Knight Commission’s frustration with the current model and their willingness to “think outside of the box”, but reminds that “there are always unintended consequences [to change]. It’s naive to think that the D-I schools left sitting on the outside [of the revamped configuration] won’t try to compete with and emulate the big boys and perhaps more importantly, separating the money makers [could be akin] to giving those schools a license to push the boundaries in their pursuit of revenue growth even further.”
Football is the only collegiate sport “for which the NCAA does not conduct a championship” and while the governing body continues to maintain “regulatory authority over recruiting and eligibility, it has no hand in revenue distribution, whatsoever.” As a result, an outsized portion of FBS revenues are paid out to the constituents of the P5 conferences creating the current power imbalance. If the proposal Duncan referenced were to come to fruition, Elmore points out that “the NCAA wouldn’t have a say in the distribution of men’s basketball tournament revenues, either” – which could pose another problem. March Madness is currently responsible for generating the majority of NCAA revenues. “Without that money, [non-revenue generating sports] could be forced to support themselves on the revenues they bring in [as opposed to being subsidized by distributions from the NCAA] and that could result in huge cutbacks.” Of course, until the Knight Commission completes their review it’s premature to panic. “[The revamped model] could end up being more equitable. The institutions would still be getting distributions from the NCAA tournament. It’s possible without the NCAA taking a cut that each school would collect more money [thus positively off-setting any lost distributions].”
Elmore thinks that there is an alternative structure that ought to be considered as well. “Conceptualize all of the things that would contribute to the student athletes’ health, safety and success in and out of the classroom – excluding pay for services rendered because you need that demarcation between college and pro sports – and incentivize the NCAA with an anti-trust exemption conditioned upon the organization fulfilling that laundry list.” Free universal health care, an increased focus on mental health, enforcement of restrictions on practice time so that “athletes can get the fullness of their education”, the formation of an advocacy group to deal with player-coach problems and group licensing (so more than just a select few benefit from NIL) would be at the top of his list. The anti-trust exemption described in Elmore’s proposal would allow the NCAA to set limits on spending, “curtailing the arms race and thus, opening up more money for the health, safety and success of student-athletes.”
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