Survey: Leaders in college athletics want reform. They just mostly want somebody else to do it.

A new survey from the Knight Commission shows that plenty of folks in college athletics want to change the status quo. But the hows get more complicated.

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I’ve got a few more announcements at the end, but let’s talk about a pretty interesting new survey from the Knight Commission.

On Tuesday, the Knight Commission released the results of a comprehensive survey to better understand what current athletic leaders thought about current NCAA organization, governance and strategy. University presidents, athletic directors, conference commissioners, faculty athletics representatives and other senior leaders, from the largest P5 programs to the smallest schools without football, were asked a variety of questions about the need for various college athletics reforms.

You can read the entire report here, or a summary of the findings here.

Almost everybody agrees, the time for substantial reform in college athletics is now.

The survey showed that 74% of respondents agreed with that they’d like to see “reform in NCAA Division 1 governance”, with similar percentages indicating they’d like substantial reforms, not minor tweaks, and that now, as college athletics faces turbulent times in the face of COVID, is the perfect time to do it.

College leaders even shared broad agreement about some of the specific problems. 79% of respondents felt that the current D-1 structure has too large a difference in resources across schools. Large swaths, and especially at the non-football schools, felt that membership across D-1 did not share common values about what college athletics is even supposed to be. 59% felt that their school spent more than they “should” have on football in order to keep up with higher resourced programs. The list goes on and on.

Broadly speaking, across all job titles, this survey paints a picture of college athletics leaders that are substantially dissatisfied with the status quo. They are concerned about rising expenses, wildly disparate values and missions, and even with the amount of power or influence that certain kinds of institutions (particularly P5 institutions) might have.

But once you start talking about concrete solutions? Well, the level of support changes.

One constant theme that stuck out in these responses, to me, is that respondents seem to think that the “problem” is because of those pesky, other institutions.

Take this image, for example:

How can there be a nationwide crisis in values about college athletics, if everybody seems to think that their school is actually one of the good guys?

Let’s take a closer look at some of the big, sweeping proposals that were suggested. What if we just moved all of FBS football into some completely new entity, outside of the NCAA? Would this not be pretty close to that proverbial “P5 breakaway” that gets suggested on every message board and subreddit each offseason?

As a whole, a plurality of respondents, 44%, said they’d be likely to support a proposal like that. But among P5 schools, the engine of such a hypothetical move, only 23% said they’d support it. At the non-football D-1 level, 65% of respondents said they’d support it. If your school doesn’t sponsor football, it appears that you are more likely to think that they’re the problem, and just have them do that football stuff somewhere else. The schools who would actually move? They seem less excited.

What about creating a new division within D-1, a sort of D-1+, for just the P5? Everybody would still compete in the same tournament for men’s and women’s basketball, but the biggest budget programs would then set their own standards for things like amateurism rules, scholarship minimums, minimum number of sports, etc. If this new league wanted to start their own championships for say, baseball, they could.

Quick note: the NCAA doesn’t technically run FBS college football, so this proposal doesn’t really have anything to do with the College Football Playoff.

Well here, you see more support among FBS institutions, with 61% of respondents indicating they’d support it. But among G5, or FCS schools? Just 26%.

So at the end of the day, you have administrators all agreeing that they want big, transformative changes. But when those changes directly impact their own school, or their peers? There’s not much of a consensus.

There does appear to be agreement on some smaller changes, including a few very Extra Points Endorsed ideas

Administrators at all levels of college athletics have spoken about a desire to better control costs related to scheduling. If you’re a school in Chicago or Philadelphia, there’s no real reason to travel more than a bus ride away for an out of conference game. But for schools west of the Mississippi, regional scheduling isn’t always a practical option.

I’ve advocated for conferences to consider allowing for single-sport leagues, outside of football and basketball, to help like-minded programs save money on travel. I’ve also advocated for programs in D-II, or even D-III, to “play up” a level in a few specific sports, like a handful of programs currently do in hockey and other sports.

The idea of letting D-II schools play “up” is not popular with conference commissioners (and for what it’s worth, that’s been my experience talking with some as well), but campus leaders are more willing to consider it.

I can understand why a conference leader would be less excited about letting schools play up a level, or about letting a member institution play softball in a different league to save money. Those rules could potentially take away some of their power. But are school leaders willing to force an issue?

There’s also the matter of an antitrust exemption

Right now, the NCAA is advocating for an federal antitrust exemption to help them regulate athlete NIL. As it stands, if the NCAA imposed, say, a cap on potential athlete earnings, or tried to heavily regulate what kinds of deals an athlete could pursue, there’s a chance they could be sued on antitrust grounds.

Virtually every economist and athlete advocate thinks this would be a terrible idea, as it would hand the NCAA significant power to limit economic activity for athletes. Lawmakers from both parties, at least at the moment, do not appear to be excited about this prospect either.

But an antitrust exemption could also potentially be used to limit coach or administrator salaries. Right now, the NCAA can’t really limit how much a coach can earn. They tried this once, and lost pretty conclusively in court. And while the Knight survey shows many administrators may be interested in conference-specific agreements to limit staff sizes or coaching salaries, those could be at risk for legal challenges as well.

But if the NCAA secured an antitrust exemption, they theoretically could put a cap on coaching salaries, or AD salaries, or on the number of “analysts” one employs. One AD, Kevin Blue of UC Davis, has specifically argued for the NCAA to pursue this path, even here on this very newsletter.

I personally find this argument to be more persuasive, and could see a world where this sort of cost containment strategy could theoretically produce better institutional outcomes. But it’s also worth noting that it’s another example of somebody else making the reform decisions. After all, nobody is really forcing a school to pay a coach $5 million dollars a year to maybe make the Birmingham Bowl. There may be political and cultural incentives to do this, but you don’t have to do it.

Administrators say they want bold changes. But how bold are they really willing to get now?

Survey respondents indicated, by a large margin, that they thought it was important for all schools, from the P5s to the lowest resourced schools in D1, to participate in the same basketball tournament. After all, the first weekend of March Madness just isn’t the same if the NEC, Big South and Patriot League aren’t participating. So any massive governance change that could potentially mess with the NCAA Tournament is probably a non-starter.

If the federal government doesn’t swoop in, what will the leaders in this sport actually try to change in the near future? Will they stomach substantial governance and membership reform? That might be difficult if there isn’t consensus on how to act between P5s and the rest of D1. Blow up conferences? Most schools indicated they were mostly happy with their leagues, and conference commissioners seem cool on blowing up any of those systems.

There may be energy around tinkering with the NCAA distribution formula, changing parts of the enforcement process, maybe even making substantial bylaw adjustments. In the next two years, we’re likely to see a world where all athletes get a one time transfer, and where athletes can take advantage of their NIL.

Those are big changes for athletes. But they don’t really change the governance model of the NCAA.

I agree with many of these leaders. This is a great time to reevaluate the current NCAA system, from membership, to governance, to bylaws. Amid this chaos, now would be as good a time as any to try and rebuild college athletics to be more fair to all parties and better aligned to institutional missions.

But that will require big changes, not just big changes to the other guys. Are the stakeholders really willing to do that?

Based on this data, I’m not so sure.

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