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How the Knight Commission would recast college sports

The Knight Commission has long been an advocate for greater academic rigor in big-time college sports. Thursday it proposed new standards to try to combat the 'arms race' of athletic spending.

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University of Washington players warm up during the NCAA men's basketball tournament on March 24. The team had a 29 percent graduation rate for its players, meaning it would have been banned from March Madness according to new academic standards proposed by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics Thursday.

Mike Groll/AP/file

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College sports is big business. But are Division I schools’ spending priorities so out of whack as to threaten the very integrity of their educational mission?

That’s the premise of the latest report by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. It calls for reforms designed to rein in the “arms race” of athletics spending and to treat college athletes as students rather than professionals.

The report notes that median spending per athlete grew by 38 percent between 2005 and 2008 at the big-sport schools of the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Football Bowl Subdivision, previously known as Division I-A. At the same schools, academic spending per student grew 20 percent. The schools spend about $84,000 per athlete, versus $13,000 per student for academics.

“The NCAA ... frequently speaks about the importance of academics as an integral part of intercollegiate athletics.... We’re just saying, let’s live by that principle.... Let’s make certain that a significant fraction of [sports] revenue is dedicated to rewarding high academic performance,” said William Kirwan, co-chairman of the commission and chancellor of the University System of Maryland, during a press conference Thursday.

Athletes’ academic success has improved in recent years after previous Knight Commission recommendations took hold, such as publicizing graduation rates and tightening eligibility rules. Now, the 22-member commission says, it’s time to raise standards again and change the financial-incentive structure.

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