Calls for Intercollegiate Athletics Reform Unlikely to Lead to Meaningful Changes

November 9th, 2017 | by Dan Matheson
Calls for Intercollegiate Athletics Reform Unlikely to Lead to Meaningful Changes


“As our nation approaches a new century, the demand for reform of intercollegiate athletics has escalated dramatically. Educational and athletics leaders face the challenge of controlling costs, restraining recruiting, limiting time demands, and restoring credibility and dignity to the term ‘student-athlete.’”  

Excerpt from Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics 1991 report titled “Keeping Faith With The Student-Athlete: A New Model for Intercollegiate Athletics.”

In the aftermath of the Southern Methodist University football scandals of the 1980s that led to an NCAA “death penalty” against the program, and dozens of other scandals that dominated college sports news at the time, the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics issued its first report proposing sweeping intercollegiate athletics reform.  More than 25 years later, the Knight Commission’s reform mission is still relevant, and the challenges to the intercollegiate athletics model are just as threatening.  The Knight Commission held its annual meetings last month and, in addition to its usual business, had several college sports scandals to address:

1. In June, the NCAA Committee on Infractions sanctioned the University of Louisville for providing prostitutes and strippers to men’s basketball recruits in a campus dormitory over a period of several years.

2. In September, four men’s basketball coaches were arrested in an FBI undercover operation that alleged six-figure payments to star recruits that were coordinated between shoe company representatives, coaches and sports agents to help steer players to certain schools.

3. In October, the Committee on Infractions failed to punish the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for an academic scandal that included hundreds of student-athletes, lasted nearly two decades and landed the entire institution on probation with its academic accrediting body.

Mark Emmert, NCAA president, attended the Knight Commission meetings, where Commission co-chair Arne Duncan, former U.S. Secretary of Education, stated, “The Commission is deeply troubled by mounting evidence that the NCAA is unable to ensure a level of integrity that must be a priority in the education and treatment of college athletes.  These threats to the integrity of college sports are an urgent call to reform if ever there was one.”  Duncan and co-chair Carol Cartwright, president emeritus of two NCAA schools, called for broad NCAA reform in response to the recent scandals:

1. Address exploitation of college athletes by shoe companies and sports agents.

2. Address the structure of non-scholastic youth basketball and its recruiting culture.

3. Give the NCAA more authority to assess and make determinations of academic fraud.

4. Enhance the investigative and enforcement capabilities of the NCAA.

Emmert stated, “We cannot go into the next basketball season without seeing fundamental change in the way college basketball is operating,” and he cited statistics showing that nearly 80 percent of people recently polled by the NCAA believed “big universities put money ahead of their student-athletes.”

So, what will happen next?  The Knight Commission does not vote on new or revised NCAA rules.  The Knight Commission’s influence comes from its ability to inspire those who can change NCAA rules and policies.  In the 26 years since its first report, the Knight Commission has lobbied for and seen changes in such areas as presidential control of athletics on campuses and in NCAA decision-making structures, academic incentives in the annual NCAA revenue distribution plan, and rule changes to reduce athletics time demands on student-athletes.  But the Knight Commission’s recommendations are not always adopted by the powers that run college sports.  Below are my expectations and observations concerning the areas for reform that the Knight Commission emphasized during its recent meetings:

1. The Commission called on the NCAA to consider reforms that would address exploitation of college athletes by shoe companies and sports agents and the structure of non-scholastic youth basketball and its recruiting culture.  The NCAA responded to the news of FBI arrests (before the Knight Commission meetings) by forming a Commission on College Basketball (CCB), chaired by former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, to explore all of those issues and others.  The NCAA tasked the CCB with providing rule, policy and structural changes to the NCAA Board of Governors and Division I Board of Directors in April.  

The NCAA has implemented several strategies in the past 20 years in an effort to control corruption and rules violations in college basketball and non-scholastic youth basketball, but the effectiveness of such efforts are limited when individuals choose to go rogue.  For example, with some exceptions, NCAA coaches may not attend non-scholastic basketball youth tournaments or camps that do not go through an NCAA certification process (NCAA Bylaws 13.18,,  NCAA certification does not allow agent involvement with certified events or individual teams and requires certified events to hold NCAA rules education sessions, and other NCAA rules restrict contact between college coaches and participants during certified events.  The NCAA also has “development” staff whose work focuses on developing relationships and information to help lead to discovery of NCAA violations.  The NCAA even has a Division I Men’s Basketball Ethics Coalition that consists of 13 current coaches who work with NCAA development staff to promote ethical conduct in the men’s basketball community through education, leadership and mentoring.

None of those previous measures prevented unethical coaches from orchestrating deals to pay prospects and accepting bribes from agents, as was recently alleged by the FBI.  The bottom line is that the NCAA will be unable to put an end to corruption by coaches, shoe company representatives, sports agents and others unless involved individuals share actionable information with the NCAA.  Unfortunately, there are few insiders willing to serve as informants to the NCAA, and the NCAA lacks the investigative tools to develop the sort of information the FBI was able to acquire (see #2 below).  

The NCAA may create new rules intended to better control relationships between apparel companies and athletics departments, but I would not expect those to be any more effective than the rules intended to keep agents out of college sports.  There were sports agents and financial advisors also arrested in the FBI bribery and corruption investigation, and the NCAA already has plenty of rules in place to prevent the sort of agent activity that allegedly occurred.  There are limits to the effectiveness of rules to deal with individuals who are determined to seek a competitive advantage and/or financial gain.

In my opinion, it is unlikely that the NCAA will make meaningful changes to the rules that will effectively guard against similar corruption and bribery in the future.

2. The Knight Commission called for the enhancement of investigative tools available to the NCAA, such as subpoena power.  As suggested under #1 above, NCAA rule changes and initiatives are not likely to stop some coaches from finding creative ways to funnel money to recruits.  Subpoena power and other investigation capabilities would help level the playing field between the cheaters and the investigators, but I do not expect the NCAA to get those things.

The FBI case against the coaches, shoe company representatives and sports agents was developed with the help of an informant working with the FBI, the ability to secretly record meetings, the ability to send undercover agents into meetings, and other law enforcement tactics that the NCAA lacks.  Subpoena power would allow the NCAA to force individuals to testify or provide requested evidence during an investigation or hearing, which would be an enhancement to its current investigative abilities.  The NCAA enforcement staff only has the authority to require current student-athletes and individuals employed by NCAA institutions to participate in interviews and produce evidence pertaining to suspected NCAA violations.  Shoe company representatives, sports agents, former student-athletes and former coaches have no obligation to cooperate with NCAA investigations and often refuse to participate in the NCAA process.

The NCAA infractions process only deals with NCAA rules, which are not state or federal statutes or enacted by federal or state agencies.  For the NCAA to have subpoena power or any other enhanced law enforcement capability at its disposal, dramatic changes would have to occur.  The federal government would probably need to make the NCAA, or some other version of an intercollegiate athletics governing body, a federal agency, similar to the Securities and Exchange Commission or the Internal Revenue Service.

In my opinion, it is unlikely that the NCAA will end up becoming a government agency and receiving subpoena power.  I also would not expect schools to vote in favor of changing NCAA rules to allow the enforcement staff to go undercover or use other enhanced investigative tactics during the infractions process.  I do not sense there being widespread support from schools and conferences for the NCAA to perform more invasive investigations.

3. In response to the outcome in the UNC infractions case, the Knight Commission called on the NCAA to modify rules that essentially allow an institution to make its own determination about the academic legitimacy of its courses.  While there may be some NCAA rules changes made in this area, I suspect any changes will be limited.  As I outlined in a previous article, the UNC case involved thousands of students, including a large percentage of athletes, receiving credit for courses that did not contain the academic rigor or guidelines expected by the university; however, the evidence in the case did not support that it was an academic fraud scheme to make student-athletes eligible.  UNC continued to honor the course credit for the thousands of UNC students – both athletes and non-athletes – who used the courses to satisfy graduation requirements.  It was a unique case that was difficult for the NCAA infractions process to handle under current rules and was more of an institutional academic issue than an athletics academic fraud issue, but it drew national attention that led to increased scrutiny and public outrage when the consequences fell far short of the media buildup during the investigation.

I predict any rules changes addressing this issue will be limited because I do not sense that NCAA schools want to give the enforcement staff the authority to review course content in other cases and apply its own determination of academic legitimacy.  The NCAA is not an academic accrediting body, but following the UNC decision, where UNC’s accrediting body placed the institution on probation for academic integrity issues, NCAA member schools may now be willing to change the rules to give the Committee on Infractions the ability to consider evidence from an outside accrediting agency when evaluating whether academic fraud occurred.  Such a change would have limited impact since cases where an athletics academic fraud issue reaches the level of review by an academic accrediting body are exceptionally rare.

When intercollegiate athletics faced a credibility crossroads in the 1980s, the Knight Commission pushed a reform agenda, and the NCAA responded with changes that restored enough confidence in the industry to allow it to move forward.  Intercollegiate athletics now faces a similar crossroads almost 30 years after the SMU scandal.  While policy and rule changes may once again help the industry get past its current challenges, I am not optimistic that the core issues of corruption, unethical behavior and rule-breaking by individuals for team and personal gains can ever be adequately resolved.

Dan Matheson About Dan Matheson
Dan Matheson, J.D., is director of the University of Iowa Sport & Recreation Management program. Prior to joining the Iowa faculty, Matheson was an NCAA associate director of enforcement and the New York Yankees baseball operations director. He serves on Iowa’s Presidential Committee on Athletics and is a dynamic keynote speaker and panelist who has received multiple teaching honors.

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