III. Treating College Athletes as Students First and Foremost—Not as Professionals

The following recommendations are focused on treating college athletes as students first and foremost through budgeting, policies, expectations, and in the staffing devoted to their athletic development. While these recommendations aim to restore academic values, there are significant cost considerations in each of these areas as well.

Some high-profile college programs, particularly in football and basketball, have evolved into elaborate operations that rival professional sports teams in the numbers of coaching and support personnel as well as compensation for those staff. Expectations and time demands on college athletes have risen alongside these investments in their athletic development. Additionally, as financial pressures mount to cover these increasing costs, institutions face increasing tensions over the commercial interest in using college athletes for commercial gain. Our objective is to ensure that pursuit of revenues does not infringe upon athletes’ rights and their academic obligations. We also wish to identify areas where significant action is needed to curb escalating costs resulting from spending on infrastructure and on staffing levels that approach those of professional sports teams.

A. Ensuring that athletes are students first by limiting intrusions on academic responsibilities and limiting commercial activities

  1. Our objective is to ensure that pursuit of revenues does not infringe upon athletes’ rights and their academic obligations.

    Structure all postseason competitions to benefit and protect student-athletes. The NCAA principle governing postseason competition must be followed to ensure that the benefits from competing are provided to all participants, that “unjustified intrusion on the time student-athletes devote to their academic programs” is prevented, and that student-athletes are protected “from exploitation by professional and commercial enterprises.”

    Given the NCAA’s stated principle, we note our disappointment that the current football postseason structure has been extended so that games now occur well into the second term, especially in institutions that operate on the quarter system, and thus create conflicts with academic obligations.

    We recommend that all post-season competition for football end by a set date very early in January, before the beginning of winter term or quarter classes.

  2. Reduce length of seasons and number of events. Ever-lengthening sports seasons have a corrosive effect on student-athletes’ ability to focus on academics and also drive up costs substantially. Yet the pressure to extend the competitive season continues unabated. We believe the length of seasons must be curtailed, both by reducing the number of regular season games or competitions and by eliminating or reducing nontraditional seasons, such as fall baseball. We note that the majority of presidents supported these concepts in the 2009 Knight Commission presidential survey, as did the Division I-A Athletic Directors Association.

  3. Prevent use of athletes’ identities to promote commercial entities or products. As amateurs, college athletes cannot benefit financially from the commercial use of their names or images. NCAA rules should not allow commercial sponsors or other third parties to use symbols of the athletes’ identities for financial gain or to promote commercial entities.

B. Curbing the trends toward professionalization of athletics staffing devoted to athletic development.

As noted earlier in this report, growth in athletics spending is outpacing growth in academic spending at many universities. Key contributors to the growth imbalance have been rising coaches’ compensation and growth in the number of non-coaching support personnel positions, particularly in football and basketball.

  1. Enforce current coaching limitations. Over the past decade, some positions have been added in ways that circumvent regulations intended to limit the number of coaches at each university. We recommend that the NCAA strongly enforce regulations forbidding non-coaching personnel from performing coaching duties.

  2. Establish new rules on the number of non-coaching personnel. The NCAA should limit the number of staff members assigned to a particular sport whose duties do not involve either academic support or health and safety, such as “directors of sport operations” and video personnel. The majority of presidents in the 2009 Knight Commission presidential survey supported creating policies to address this problem.

  3. Coaches’ compensation. In the 2009 Knight Commission presidential survey of college presidents, campus leaders called escalating coaches’ salaries the single largest contributing factor to the unsustainable growth of athletics expenditures.

    The NCAA should limit the number of staff members assigned to a particular sport whose duties do not involve either academic support or health and safety.

    Because of federal antitrust laws, including rulings directly involving the NCAA and member institutions, the NCAA cannot create caps on coaches’ salaries, and colleges cannot act together to restrain those salaries. The Commission examined whether compensation for football and basketball coaches should be addressed by seeking a change in the federal antitrust laws.

    We concluded that securing such an exemption from the antitrust laws for any reason is a complicated, time-consuming, and expensive endeavor that is by no means assured of success. The Commission thus recommends that an exemption not be sought, at least at this time, and instead that the higher education community focus on developing and implementing the transparency and accountability systems and the financial incentives and structures that we are recommending. Reform of collegiate athletics financing can and must be more immediate and comprehensive than any limited and specific exemption secured through the legislative process.

    However, the Commission does reiterate two simple principles from its prior reports that will provide for more effective accountability with regard to compensation of all athletics department staff members.

      a. Colleges and universities should consider coaches’ compensation in the context of the academic institutions that employ them. Their compensation should reflect the values of the amateur athletics programs that they oversee, not the values of professional sports teams whose major objectives are winning championships and earning profits.

      b. Institutions should not permit athletics staff members (including, but not limited to, coaches) to have separate contracts with companies that reward staff members financially for requiring team members to wear or use specific equipment, apparel, or shoes that display the company logo or brand. Associating a corporate brand with university trademarks, on uniforms, through apparel that college athletes are required to wear, should be done through contracts between the university and the company and not through contracts with individual staff members (including coaches).

C. Examining scholarship offerings to assess whether costs can be reduced without eliminating equitable participation opportunities for men and women

The last comprehensive examination of the appropriate number of scholarships that should be permitted in each sport was conducted by the NCAA nearly 30 years ago. The sports landscape has changed drastically since then. Additionally, more complete injury data exist to provide a more complete consideration of the actual number of players needed in relation to the playing opportunities available. The Commission encourages the NCAA Board of Directors to review these expenditures soon. As a starting point, the Commission reiterates its 2001 recommendation to reduce the total number of football scholarships at Football Bowl Subdivision schools. We believe a conservative reduction would be eight to 10 fewer scholarships from the current 85. Even with this reduction, football would still have a much higher ratio of scholarships to playing opportunities when compared with other sports. Such a reduction may require a change in the maximum number of scholarships for football programs that compete in the Football Championship Subdivision or in Division II.


Knight Commission member Sarah Lowe on the purpose of college sports

Knight Commission member Len Elmore on putting college athletics into perspective

Knight Commission Co-Chairman William E. “Brit” Kirwan on financial reform