Watchdog group: Commercialization of FBS, college basketball requires restructuring of NCAA

The Knight Commission has called for a restructuring of college sports in response to the “highly commercialized environment” of major-college football and basketball. In a letter to NCAA president Mark Emmert, the reform-minded commission emphasized the need to explore “alternative structures for Division I college sports.”

Last week, Knight Commission co-chair Arne Duncan suggested “big-revenue athletics programs” might be placed in a different division outside of NCAA oversight.

“Just let them play by a different set of rules — and be up front about it and be honest,” said Duncan, a former U.S. Secretary of Education. Duncan went on to say the NCAA currently is “overwhelmed,” adding that the association had become “irrelevant” in the wake of the FBI basketball scandal.

Those were considered strong words from an individual who used to work closely with the NCAA as a member of President Barack Obama’s cabinet.

The Knight Commission is concerned that up to 60 percent of the NCAA’s annual $500 million-plus distribution to schools is “impacted” by FBS football, a sport the NCAA doesn’t sponsor. The commission is recommending more “far-reaching reforms” that continue to emphasize athletes’ education, health and safety.

Knight chief executive officer Amy Perko used the example of the current Student Athlete Assistance Fund. While schools are able to use that fund (approximately $350,000 per school) to pay athletes’ insurance premiums and other benefits, the fund is limited.

“Is the system we have in place currently appropriate and fair as to student-athlete benefits?” Perko told CBS Sports.

She questioned the Power Five conferences running the CFP outside the NCAA’s revenue distribution plan. Since the NCAA doesn’t sponsor a championship in FBS football, the revenue produced by it isn’t counted for distribution purposes.

In the late 1970s, NCAA major-college football subdivided into Division I (now FBS), Division I-AA (now FCS), Division II and Division III. Back then, there were no shared revenues from a postseason playoff. Obviously, all that has changed.

Over the decades, the NCAA’s oversight of big-time football has been reduced. At the FBS level, the NCAA basically only sets play, practice and recruiting rules while also overseeing officiating. The FBS conducts its own championship and has its own revenue model outside the NCAA.

The 65 schools in the Power Five conferences are currently collecting the overwhelming majority of the $7.2 billion in rights fees from ESPN over the 12-year term of the CFP contract.

“Is that the right structure given the commerce and principles and what the actual operations there of Division I? Or is there a better configuration?” Perko asked.

Within that discussion, Perko added, is the debate over name, image and likeness.

“It’s clearly gotten out of [the NCAA’s] control,” she said. “The best opportunity to control is to obviously get the federal legislation.”

Emmert recently said it may be time for the federal government to step in and regulate name, image and likeness. That was a considerable change in philosophy for the NCAA, which for decades has fought against federal intervention in its business.

The Knight Commission isn’t the only entity questioning the NCAA’s viability. In 2015, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick detailed for CBS Sports how separate divisions of major-college football could work.

The Knight Commission has been an independent watchdog of college sports since its inception in 1989. The letter to Emmert was signed by Knight co-chairs Duncan and Carole Cartwright. It was sent to Emmert, the chair of the NCAA Board of Governors (Ohio State president Michael Drake), the NCAA vice president of Division I governance  (Kevin Lennon) and the NCAA chief operating officer (Donald Remy). 

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