How the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics Has Jumped the Shark

The Knight Commission has: 1) ignored the”intercollegiate sports” club-sport “student-athlete,” and 2) allocated its time and resources to largely ignore the interests of the big-time “student-athlete.” Both these sectors — the club sport and ‘big-time’ student athlete need representation at, and direct support from the Knight Commission, along with a place in its agenda-setting. 


The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, established in 1989, has a mission explicitly focused on “intercollegiate athletics” and the “student-athlete.”  It’s home web page declares that its goal is to “to ensure that intercollegiate athletics programs operate within the educational mission of their colleges and universities.”

But the Commission has, in many ways, lost sight of the predominant part of this defined mission, by adopting, whole-cloth, like a captive subsidiary, the NCAA’s primary de facto — and myopic — goal: the “integration” of the big-time Power 5 “student-athlete” with the student body. This narrow goal, which makes manifest the NCAA’s desperation to try to save itself from its own baser impulse to “segregate” that “student-athlete,” runs in only one direction, and ignores the predominant majority of “student-athletes” on campus. The Knight Commission, according to its defined mission, must also spend much of its time and work on “integrating” the “ordinary” non-scholarship student-athlete into athletic pursuits.

Unless the Knight people redefine that mission, they need to immediately re-allocate their manpower and resources to promote and protect “club sports” at every college and university. Club sports — according to every definition, including those generated by Knight — are “intercollegiate athletics,” involving, at every campus, “student-athletes,” and are, therefore, central to the Knight mission — though you could never tell from the Knight Commision’s spending, or their publicly-sponsored events.

It appears that few at Knight understand this. As a result, Knight has been preoccupied with — and its substantial resources have been often wasted on — entertaining and even sponsoring discussions which are dominated by the fabulously-paid colleges sports business managers who run college conferences, and the ‘big-time’ schools of the Power 5 (and other conferences) — all of which dwell in great detail upon how the billions of dollars of gross income ought be spent on all the “scholarship” sports,” to insure that they are properly “integrated.”

But never a word about club sports…

Knight Commission administrators, all of whom are well-intentioned, have missed probably the predominant portion of their assigned task:  to protect and promote those college students who play college ‘club’ sports. The Knight endowment, according to the strict terms of its mission, should be much more actively advocating to promote spending of some fair portion of the mammoth sums received by universities for ‘big-time’ athletic live and TV contests, on club sports. As Tom Farrey has so aptly identified — when he presented at the Knight Commission’s own proceedings in 2014 — youth sports participation has declined; his more nuanced, but spot-on point was that the “chase for athletic scholarships,” in the small, non-revenue sports, at a very early, even elementary school age, has exploded, and has been dominated by (predominantly white) upper-class kids whose parents have the resources to purchase training and access for their children.  This, as Farrey says, does not “necessarily serve the public health,” which therefore might suggest that the “small sports,” which have developed as scholarship avenues for so many upper class white kids, do not serve the Knight mission. By this logic, one might even argue that Knight ought open up their discussion to the question as to whether this “chase for college scholarships” ought to be abandoned, and — as an alternative — universities should stop awarding small sport scholarships, and work to beef up club sports venues, competitions, and participation — none of which require scholarship.

If you need a concrete example, look at former AD David Brandon’s decisions at Michigan: 18 months ago, he endorsed (as did the Regents) a $250 million expansion of “small-sport” stadiums and facilities — all the while requiring that the rehabilitation of the CCRB (the mid-campus student recreational -fitness facility) must be accomplished by a new fee to be paid by all students — in a setting where the ‘big-time’ athletics department grosses $150 millions annually! Should the Knight people be entertaining lively discussions about whether that kind of gross revenue ought to robustly support spending on campus recreation and club sports for the ‘common’ non-scholarship student-athlete?

The Knight Commission has jumped the shark. All these million-dollar-per-year fellows who come speak at their conferences need — if we are to take the Knight mission at face valiue – to be asked more serious questions.

The Knight Commission has fallen victim to the same phenomenon which overtakes many of our institutions: the persons and institutions who have money, status and power dominate the debate. And they also dominate the agenda -setting. The Knight people need  to expand their annual agenda-setting, to include this predominant portion of their constituency as defined by the Knights. The work and the agendas need to expand to promote the integration of the non-scholarship, ‘ordinary’ student into club sports, which also means that Knight should be at the forefront of advocating that a greater portion of big-time sports’ gross revenues be spent on venues and operations for the non-scholarship student’s athletic activity.

But there is one more fundamental aspect to the Knight Commission’s ‘shark-jumping.’ Their administrators appear oblivious to the 120-year history of ‘sector-based’ labor relations, and how it affects the big-time college athlete. I will not contend here that Power 5 athletes certainly are employees, or that they are entitled, presumptively, to coverage under the NLRB; I need only contend that these are reasonable, tenable propositions. And if they are tenable, then the Knight Commmsion has some duty, if it is supposed to promote the welfare of  the sector which is defined as the “student-athlete” in “intercollegiate athletics,”  to provide both a forum and support for that sector as it advances the interests of the student-athlete (and other interested parties) in assessing their viability. If that is true, then the Commision needs to promote the availability of legal and agent assistance for all college athletes, and explore issues which arise as that sector evolves alongside the management-dominated business of college athletics.

Because most of the country’s intercollegiate athletes are not on scholarship, Knight needs to shift its agendas to address and promote the “integration” of club sports with all students. And Knight needs to expand its discussions to insure that its resources and agenda include protecting the “sector-based” (and largely ignored) interests of the ‘big-time’ college athlete.

About brewonsouthu

lawyer, with interest in college sports and NCAA oversight and decisions, and sports generally.
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