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Knight Commission endorses FBS split from NCAA

A commission of college athletics leaders recommended Thursday that the best way to repair the NCAA’s “broken governance model” is to remove the teams of the Football Bowl Subdivision from the association, forcing the top level of college football to govern itself as a separate entity.

The Knight Commission, a reform-minded independent group of university presidents, former athletic directors and others, spent the past year studying the current state of college sports before making its recommendation.

After surveying a wide swath of college sports stakeholders, the group said it discovered that many leaders in the industry believe the time has come for significant change. It decided that the most effective way to solve a variety of problems is to separate football — an outlier of a sport because of the vast and quickly increasing difference in the revenue it generates.

“Every other sport looks like a duck and walks like a duck and probably is a duck,” Knight Commission co-chair Arne Duncan told ESPN. “That one [football] looks like a pterodactyl. It’s not like the others, and it’s had a wildly disproportionate impact on everything else. It doesn’t make sense.”

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The commission does not have any authority to enact change in college sports, but its leaders hope Thursday’s recommendation will serve as “an essential first step” in what they see as a needed overhaul of how college sports are governed.

The group met with NCAA president Mark Emmert on Thursday morning to present its recommendation. It also plans to present its finding to other members of the NCAA for further discussion in the near future.

“The governance and oversight of college sports are determined by the presidents of the schools who participate,” the NCAA said in a statement. “The nearly 1,100 presidents of NCAA schools have consistently sought to create the most effective and fair ways to support student athletes. Presently, the NCAA is discussing the long-term sustainability of intercollegiate athletics. These discussions are focused on promoting the education, health and safety and fair treatment of college athletes. NCAA members within Division I have long sought to include a diverse representation of schools while supporting all student-athletes in similar ways.”

The commission’s proposal to separate FBS football from the NCAA would leave those big-time football programs in charge of creating a new entity that would develop and enforce rules, determine eligibility requirements, set health and safety standards, and organize a national championship.

The NCAA currently provides all those services for college football except for organizing a championship. The NCAA organizes championships for most sports, but college football’s postseason — and the significant money that it generates — is controlled by a separate entity called the College Football Playoff.

Under this proposed plan, all other sports at those FBS schools would remain under the NCAA’s governance system. That includes college basketball and its March Madness tournament, which remains the largest revenue source for the NCAA.

Lower levels of football would also remain under the NCAA’s purview.

Duncan said the group also considered the idea of creating a new division just for schools in the Power 5 conferences, which operate on much larger budgets than most of their peers thanks in large part to money generated from media rights deals and their own television networks. The last split of that magnitude occurred nearly 50 years ago when the NCAA divided its schools into three divisions in 1973.

Ultimately, the Knight Commission decided that the gap between an FBS-level football program and the non-revenue sports on that same campus was wider and the source of more problems than the gap between, for example, the softball team at a Power 5 school and the football team at a school from a smaller conference.

The Knight Commission also made several other recommendations for all of college sports — the NCAA and its proposed National College Football Association (NCFA) — to reform its current model. They include holding university presidents accountable for controlling their athletic departments, making sure revenue is distributed in a way that promotes the schools’ educational mission and a continued prohibition on allowing players to be paid.

Duncan, who played basketball at Harvard before serving as the Obama administration’s secretary of education, said a shake-up of the NCAA’s current model is long overdue. He said he believes that outside pressure stemming largely from recent court cases and legislative interest in the ongoing name, image and likeness debate have added a sense of urgency to make major changes.

“Change is coming,” he said. “Whether that’s at the state level or federal level, change is coming to college athletics. It’s absolutely in the NCAA’s interest to control their own fate and to lead. I don’t want to say this is their last opportunity to do that, but I will say they are running out of time.”

Duncan and the Knight Commission say the plan they laid out to the NCAA provides the best path for the association to make needed changes while also keeping control of its future.

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