Knight Commission's losing battle

Commission has faced difficult task as athletic income has skyrocketed

Originally Published: October 10, 2012
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- More than two decades ago, the Knight Commission took on the college athletic establishment with a gleam in its eye and reform in its heart. The Commission dared to envision a model in which the academic side of campus tamed the athletic beast within. Costs would be controlled. Athletes would be students.

And God bless 'em, the members of the Commission (Motto: Tilting at Windmills since 1989) are still dreaming the impossible dream. The Commission convened Tuesday at the Ritz-Carlton in Washington, D.C., many of the members the same administrators who fought the good fight in the wake of the athletic scandals of the 1980s. Some are in their 70s and 80s, and you have to admire their persistence, even as you search for a way to tell them the war is over. They lost.

On the other hand, imagine where intercollegiate athletics might be without them. That argument doesn't work in politics, and it probably won't work here. But without the Commission, the NCAA may not have thought to adopt a rule that teams have at least half their players on track to graduate in order to participate in an NCAA tournament.

The Commission has spearheaded reform like that throughout its existence, even as its task has gotten more arduous. In the two-plus decades since the Commission first convened, athletic income has skyrocketed. John Cheslock, the director of the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Penn State, told the Commission on Tuesday that television revenue has increased from $55-75 million in the mid-1980s to about $1 billion last year, an increase of more than 1,000 percent.

I think if there's one overreaching, unresolved, maybe universal issue, it's the financial issue. Basically, what has happened is, we have a select number of elite institutions with money that they can spend in an unlimited way. They want to spend it on athletics, so they have a videographer for every position on the field.

-- Brit Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland

In other words, the Commission knows how to defend the wishbone, and intercollegiate athletics is running the spread.

"The elite institutions have too much money," Brit Kirwan said, and his voice rose in mock exasperation, "and they are about to get more!"

Kirwan, as the chancellor of the University System of Maryland, oversees one of those elite institutions. He is also the Commission co-chair.

"I think if there's one overreaching, unresolved, maybe universal issue, it's the financial issue," Kirwan said. "Basically, what has happened is, we have a select number of elite institutions with money that they can spend in an unlimited way. They want to spend it on athletics, so they have a videographer for every position on the field.

"It is just my opinion," he said. "But it is indefensible that in a not-for-profit organization, you could pay a coach $5 million. There's no distinction between coaching in the NFL and in college."

The Commission, having failed at holding back the tide -- or the Tide -- looks for ways to minimize its effects. The Commission awarded $100,000 in grants last year to six research projects, and heard the results of that work at its meeting Tuesday.

Speaking of videographers, a University of Washington assistant professor looked at football staffs from 1991 to 2011 -- essentially, the life span of the Knight Commission. The professor, Dr. Jennifer Lee Hoffman, found that in 1991, the position of video coordinator did not exist. In 2011, there were 117. Over that same time period, the number of staffers with "operations" in their title increased from two to 124.

"We are on an unsustainable trajectory," Kirwan said. He wondered aloud if an antitrust exemption would help universities find a way to stop.

Adrien Bouchet, a professor in sports administration at Tulsa and a former walk-on linebacker at Auburn, co-authored a study of eight Division I athletic departments which found a way to stop. They. Just. Stopped. They either dropped football, dropped down from Division I, or, in the case of Vanderbilt, restructured the athletic department.

"Persistence in the face of obstacles is eventually rewarded," wrote Bouchet and his co-author, Michael Hutchinson, an assistant professor of Sport Commerce at the University of Memphis. "Or is it? After all, Wile E. Coyote has yet to catch the [Road Runner] despite years of persistent effort."

The study showed that every athletic department lived happily ever after. And yet very few schools are willing to pull that trigger. Ted Leland, the former Stanford athletic director, returned to his alma mater, Pacific, in 2006. Pacific is one of the eight schools that Bouchet and Hutchinson studied.

How many calls has Leland fielded in nearly seven years from athletic directors or administrators looking for a way out from under the crushing financial burden? Exactly zero.

"When push comes to shove," Leland said, "they think, 'I want to be on TV as much as everyone else does.'"

Not to mention that the administrator who drops football may have trouble moving up the career ladder. Would one of the elites hire an athletic director who had the good sense to know when he was licked?

Leland said the widening chasm affects the entire athletic department. He sat down and looked at the backgrounds of the U.S. women's Olympic team that did so well in London.

"The BCS schools are 25 percent of Division I, and they are providing about 100 percent of Olympic-level athletes in women's sports," he said. "It's a by-product of the huge influx of money from football."

Bouchet said his own university, Tulsa, loses $10 million a year on football and is happy to do it in its niche alongside Rice, Tulane, SMU and the rest of Conference USA.

"If you talk to the CFO," Bouchet said, "he would say most of the kids who come here want the experience of college basketball and college football on Saturday. We might not be big. But it's still important. I don't see even medium-level schools de-escalating."

Onward they go, the Pacifics and the Tulsas alike, all looking for their Road Runners.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com