Knight Commission and how college sports ought to be

General view of Spartan Stadium during a game General view of Spartan Stadium during a game between Michigan State and Ohio State in East Lansing, Mich. Ohio State won, 17-16. (Sept. 29, 2012) Photo Credit: Getty

advertisement | advertise on newsday

John Jeansonne Newsday columnist John Jeansonne.

Jeansonne has been a reporter in Newsday’s sports department since 1970 and has covered 11 Olympic Games and ...

A parallel universe to autumn's opulent college football scene, where fabulously paid coaches direct big-ticket entertainment for millions of spectators in state-of-the-art athletic cathedrals -- while television's increasing riches flow -- was Tuesday's annual meeting of the watchdog Knight Commission.

The Knight group, a collection of thoughtful academicians, espouses how intercollegiate sports ought to be, instead of how it is. Recommending, for instance:

-- That school presidents should take better control of athletic departments, and school boards should demand better information from both. (The Penn State scandal brought that necessity home in the worst way.)

-- That athletes' progress in the classroom should factor into whether teams are eligible for post-season play. (As opposed to the priorities expressed by third-string Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones in a recent Twitter post: "Why should we have to go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL we ain't come to play SCHOOL classes are POINTLESS.")

Suffice to say that the worthy ongoing Knight Commission efforts -- Tuesday's session presented six reports addressing the ethical, commercial and academic challenges of colleges' ever-more-professionalized sports -- would not be favored in any Vegas betting line.

For instance, a report on the unsustainable nature of the current athletic system argued against the wisdom of smaller Division I teams attempting to keep up with the few behemoths at the top, because most schools already have spending that outpaces revenues, and must rely, more and more, on institutional subsidies and student fees to compete. In an economic climate, by the way, when university budgets already are being mightily squeezed.

John Cheslock, director of Penn State's Center of Study of Higher Education, presented a "winner-take-all" cycle that leaves out football schools below powers such as (his example) Ohio State: A history of winning leads to major fan interest (which means big money) and to externally generated revenue (such as branded souvenirs, which means more money), which powers the ability to hire top coaches and to have the best facilities and infrastructure, bringing yet more top recruits who can produce more winning.

And the circle is unbroken.

"There's no moment when we have all the money we need," Cheslock said. "You can always be doing more and doing it better, and that's true of athletics.

"It's the idea of the traditional arms races. Universities want to be more competitive and that encourages more spending. The new institutional theory, which can touch on a range of ideas, is that a lot of schools say, 'We want to be more like elite schools.'

"And what elite schools do is spend a lot of money on athletics. So, 'Maybe we should spend more on athletics.' "

Another Knight report appeared to demonstrate how the heightened stakes for athletic success has led to a higher turnover rate among football coaches in the Football Bowl Subdivision -- the level just below the BCS. And it was noted that the scramble for better coaching not only means having to outbid for coaches within the college ranks but also those who move back and forth between college and professional football.

A separate examination of how some schools have de-escalated commitments to Division I athletics -- specifically, by downsizing or dropping football -- began with the caveat, said University of Memphis sports commerce professor Michael Hutchinson, that the first step was "recognizing the problem" of trying to compete at the top level. And of fending off "negative feedback" from students, fans and alumni.

If it sounds like someone with an addiction, that's about right. And the stadiums, across America, will be full again on the weekend.

You also may be interested in: