The Knight Commission has long been a proponent of basing the distribution of some NCAA revenue on the academic performance of sports teams. The NCAA adopted this model for Division I schools in 2016 and has pledged to distribute $1.1 billion in “academic unit” revenue by 2032. Now the Knight Commission is proposing that schools only be not eligible to receive this money if they do not close the racial gap. in graduation rates.
The commission suggests that schools with a graduation rate gap greater than 25% between black and white athletes should not be eligible for earnings based on academic achievement. According to the commission, 79% of Division I schools met at least one of three criteria to qualify for academic performance income in 2019, the most recent year for which data is available. If the commissions standard of less than 25% racial gap were applied, only 66 of the schools would have qualified.
Elmore said tying the NCAA’s revenue distribution to academic standards has helped increase overall athlete graduation rates, but the current standard doesn’t address the racial gap in graduation rates.
“We need to close that gap,” Elmore said Friday. “Right now, essentially, the NCAA is sending millions of dollars to schools that have failed to close a significant gap.”
The commission’s proposal is backed by a coalition of faculty senates at NCAA Division I colleges and universities. The suggestion is that the racial graduation gap for receiving income starts at 25% and decreases over time. As the NCAA increases the academic performance revenue distributed, schools will have more financial incentives to do better with graduating Black athletes.
I think the Knight Commission’s proposal is a good idea. Most of the athletes who compete in the highest-grossing sports, soccer and men’s basketball, are black. The fact that they are not being paid market value for their work is a matter of racial justice. The same goes for their lower level of education than white athletes.
“They’re still students, and students should still be students,” Elmore said. “That’s what’s most important.”
Elmore said he believed in the idea of athletes being true students because he benefited from his upbringing in Maryland. But he acknowledges that the NCAA has long since strayed from its original intent to promote education. Money has distorted this mission. The Knight Commission has proposed using carrot money for college administrators to improve academic achievement for athletes.
There are many other areas of potential reform in athlete education. One obvious path is to reduce the number of hours athletes devote to their sport. Athletes report devoting more than 40 hours per week to sports activities. NCAA rules limit this work to 20 hours during the season. But that doesn’t include time spent on travel, processing, compliance meetings, team promotional activities, and other responsibilities.
In addition to the excessive time demands placed on athletes, there is a problem with schools that “cluster” them into classes or majors that are perceived as easy, or those that include professors who are supportive of athletic programs. The idea is that athletes have a better chance of remaining eligible and can devote more time to sports if their academic load is relatively lighter. This is yet another way education is devalued for athletes.
Elmore said he believes schools should do more to ensure that classes that attract a disproportionate number of athletes meet minimum standards of academic rigor. He said schools could also put in place mechanisms for athletes to file complaints about their education, including excessive time spent in sport, “without fear of reprisal”. Elmore envisions an independent board that would hear athletes’ concerns and “hold coaches accountable for intimidation and threats.”
I believe players would have the power to stand up to coaches if they were classified as employees and formed a union. This does not necessarily mean that education would fall by the wayside. If players were allowed to collectively bargain their compensation, they could decide that improved educational benefits and incentives should be part of it. Schools could also tie salaries and bonuses to satisfactory academic progress as part of their work agreement proposals.
Elmore counters that boosters and donors who are “simply looking for quality sports teams” would pressure schools to drop education requirements. Athletes who aren’t interested in education could also influence their peers, Elmore said. He argues that money spent on “bigger facilities” and “outrageous salaries” for coaches should be diverted to educational and other benefits for athletes, including guaranteed health care after leaving school.
Elmore notes that athletes today receive far more compensation and benefits than he did as a college athlete in the 1970s. Recent NCAA reforms include the full cost of scholarships for athletes. After the NCAA lost a unanimous Supreme Court decision last year, it voted to allow athletes the limited ability to profit from their name, image and likeness.
The Court also ruled that schools can donate up to $5,980 per year in athlete education benefits. But ESPN in April surveyed 101 schools with programs playing at the FBS level and found that only 22 intended to hand out academic rewards to players. This is another case of NCAA schools failing to put money behind their supposed educational mission while spending more and more on sports.
Elmore, who attended Harvard Law School after his NBA career, said he feared the focus on NIL had diverted attention from the question of whether athletes were getting a quality education.
“It really bothers me because I took advantage of it,” Elmore said. “I have to go to university and without (sport) I’m not sure I would have done this. I was lucky enough to go on and play professional sports, but (college) prepared me for life after sports.
Clemson’s Swinney is right when he says the commercialization of sports devalues education. He just gets the why wrong. Marketing has already taken place. That’s why Swinney has a $93 million contract. If coaches had a say, athletes would work even longer hours.
A 2016 NCAA survey of Division I coaches found that most favor lifting the 20-hour weekly cap on sports activities. This included 68% of male basketball coaches and 67% of FBS football coaches. If Swinney worries that education has been devalued in college sports, he should blame coaches and administrators for chasing money.
Kudos to the Knight Commission of Elmore for trying to reverse this trend.