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Inside The Knight Commission: Knight Commission's Perko, Collegiate Sports Associates' Turner, Penn State's Cross

Guest Todd Turner, CSA; Amy Perko, Knight Commission; Michael Cross, Penn State & Athlete Viewpoint
21:31 min listen
Knight Commission CEO Amy Perko and Knight Commission consultants, Collegiate Sports Associates Founder Todd Turner and Penn State Assistant AD, New Business Development & Athlete Viewpoint Co-Founder Michael Cross sit down with AthleticDirectorU to discuss the Knight Commission, its past, the current focus, issues looming for college athletics, and more.


2:18 – What is your leadership vision for the Knight Commission? (Perko)
4:02 – What is the primary focus for the Knight Commission? (Perko)
4:56 – What is your role with the Knight Commission? (Turner & Cross)
7:40 – In your consulting role, how do you help Amy Perko and the Knight Commission execute its purpose?
11:17 – How has the adoption of Knight Commission recommendations changed since its inception in the 1980s? (Perko)
13:30 – What is the “now” for the Knight Commission? (Turner)
14:59 – How difficult is it to think five and ten years ahead? (Perko)
17:37 – How do you manage all of your on-campus duties in addition to thinking about the mission of the Knight Commission?


Full Transcript


Speaker: This episode of the Athletic Director U podcast is brought to you by Collegiate Sports Associates. Collegiate Sports Associates’ purpose is defined by a commitment to assist their former athletic director colleagues, presidents and other institutional leaders in preserving an alignment between the mission of athletics with that of the university. Their experience and lifelong dedication to the values of higher education and amateur intercollegiate athletics are what make them unique.


Tai Brown: Greetings, this is Tai Brown with Athletic Director U and welcome to the Athletic Director U podcast. I am joined by three very distinguished individuals here on our podcast today. First guest is Todd Turner. Todd is the founder and president of Collegiate Sports Associates. Greetings, Todd.


Todd Turner: Thank you, Tai. Good to be with you.


TB: We have Amy Perko. Amy is the CEO of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. Greetings, Amy, thanks for joining us.


Amy Perko: Good to be here. Thank you.


TB: All right. And Mike Cross. Mike is the associate athletic director for business development at Penn State and co-founder of Athlete Viewpoint. Greetings, Mike.


Mike Cross: Great to see you, Tai.


TB: Glad to have you all here for a quick conversation for us over at Athletic Director U. I just… I want to touch on just a couple things while we’re here. And with a wealth of information, I probably don’t have to talk too much about anything with as much as experience we have in college athletics, with the business of college athletics, with developing staff, developing young people who are student athletes in that type of thing.


I’ll start here with you, Amy. We had a quick conversation prior to recording where we mentioned that, you know, my time at the American Football Coaches Association, the Knight Commission was kind of, kind of seen as a finger-wager, kind of oversee, watch-dog-type situation. But what I’ve heard about you is, is that you’ve, you’ve tried to make it more collaborative to where it’s like, “Hey, we’re all here for the better of the student athlete. So let’s figure out how we can all move forward.” Talk to us a little bit about, you know, your leadership vision since you’ve taken over and where you plan to take it to, I guess, from here.


AP: Sure. Well, again, thanks for the opportunity to talk about the work of the Knight Commission. And it is an independent group. We’re funded by Knight Foundation. It was founded in the late ‘80s. Really spearheaded by university presidents at that time to develop a reform agenda for college sports that would really promote the educational mission of college sports. And, you know, its work, I think, throughout its history is, is tried to be collaborative, but there are times that the system was not moving quick enough or fast enough. And so, you know, the Commission has pushed for reforms that quite frankly took too long to, to enact and the purpose of the reforms really was directed to the experience of athletes to improve graduation rates. A couple of examples, the academic threshold for postseason eligibility requiring teams to be on track to graduate more than half their players to be eligible for March Madness, postseason championships. And that took more than a decade to, to enact. And we’ve seen, you know, the very positive results that, that have occurred. More recently, we have, you know, refocused our purpose and really talk more about the athlete and, and that runs to our purpose is really to, you know, lead transformational change that ensures the priority is placed on education, health, safety, and success of student athletes. And that really is what college sports should be all about. And I think everyone working in college sports really has that same goal. It’s just that the system sometimes is, is not conducive to making decisions that places that at the number one priority.


TB: Right, right. And that’s the primary focus for you guys and it’s easy to make the decisions based on that, or it could be an objective.


AP: Yeah, to be in it, you know, we don’t have any authority in the system.


TB: Right.


AP: But we are an independent voice that can say, you know, how should the model, and this is one of the things we’re doing now is really looking, taking a step back and looking at the model for Division I in particular, and asking, “Is this model constructed in a way that does enable decision makers… at first has the right people at the table? Do we have enough athletes at the table? Are we making decisions from top to bottom governance, policies, benefits that place as its number one priority the education, health, safety and success of athletes?


TB: Yeah. And the Commission is made up of a number of people who have experienced and knowledge in the number one priority. I imagine Todd Turner, you’ve been one of them. Your role, Todd, and, and you’ve… how long have you been?


TT: Well, Michael and I are both consultants to the Knight Commission.


TB: Okay.


TT: But I want to follow up on something Amy said because I think this is really important, particularly for people who may be less experienced in the industry. I’ve got four decades of work in college athletics. If you go back to the origins of the Knight Commission, some of the legendary figures in higher education in America have all been a part of that organization. It was founded under the leadership of Fr. Hesburgh at Notre Dame and at North Carolina…


AP: Bill Friday.


TT: …Bill Friday, who were just enormous names in higher education. And, you know, we’ve had leaders of that group, Brit Kirwan, who is the president of Ohio State and led the Maryland system; Arne Duncan who is the former Secretary of Education, he’s our… one of our current co-chairs along with Carol Cartwright. The work of the Knight Commission has been, a lot of people sort of downplay, don’t understand its effectiveness. It’s really been behind the scenes in very subtle ways using the power of the people that are all in that organization to influence decision makers of the more formal level with some really provocative thoughts about alignment of athletics to the purpose and mission of higher ed, to the welfare and well-being of the students who are playing the game. So it’s, it’s a very important organization that it gets largely underappreciated and undervalued. But I can tell you, serving within now for six years in a consultant’s role, to see the work that they’ve done behind the scenes to impact the world of college athletics has been remarkable.


TB: Right. Excellent.


MC: Yeah. I was going to, I was going to follow up on Todd’s comments too and Amy’s. You know, there’s an aspect of the Knight Commission that I think provides a moral compass. And we’re in an industry that’s very competitive. We’re in an industry that within the context of the, of the academic calendar and the competitive seasons, it has to move very, very quickly and make decisions that go towards some of those questions about winning and losing. And having an organization that’s dedicated to thinking about big issues and thinking about the core values that really should surround an educational enterprise is, is fantastic and, and they’ve demonstrated that over decades, so.


TB: And you guys talk about being consultants, right, your experience from running athletics departments, being one of the ultimate influencers when you talk about student athletes. And your experience now as a practitioner on campus, and then also the business he has is also tied to that primary goal of student athlete well-being, talk to me about how you guys help Amy in what she does in the Commission to successfully execute its purpose.


TT: Yeah, our role is really to take the experiences that we have as practitioners and deal with some of the realities of the concepts and how to implement things and strategize with the, the commission members and with Amy in particular to try to find the best ways to influence policy. We’ve got a great group of consultants, and maybe you want to talk about all of them since…


AP: Sure, sure.


TT: …I really, I’ve learned more working for them than anything else…


TB: Right, right.


TT: …I’m sure, than I’ve contributed.


AP: Just some of the other consultants, Jeff Orleans, who is a longtime executive director of the Ivy League; Sandy Hatfield Clubb, also a former athletics director. We have some individuals that, you know, helping our PR, David Whitman, who worked for the Department of Education. So… but not only just the consultants, but the Commission members want to talk about that because, you know, when the Knight Commission was founded in the late ‘80s, it was very driven on getting presidents, you know, in charge of the policies from the national level, the conference level, and the institution level. So the Commission membership had a lot of current and former university presidents. It also had some thought leaders from outside college sports.


We continued with that composition, but the one thing we did in 2005, you know, a long time ago now, but we had a summit on the college athlete experience where we only had college athletes talking to us. And at that point, we began to add college athletes onto our commission. And so some of the, as you can imagine, some of the, the best comments we’ve had in discussions have come from the athletes sitting at the table. And, you know, it’s only been, you know, within the past, what, six years or so that the NCAA expanded its board to allow a seat for an athlete. And that was something the Knight Commission pushed for in its, in its governance recommendations to the NCAA. And we continue to push for, again, a student, a student seat as example in the college football playoff.


We’ve seen in our own Commission discussions where you have the university presidents at the table how, how helpful it can be to have that perspective of someone who’s not that far away from having competed as an athlete. And it’s in, in another example with the governance aspect of it, we’ve also promoted the importance of having independent directors who can look at the system as a whole and what’s in the best interest of college sports, not what’s in the best interest of my particular conference. So that’s another recommendation the Commission made. It was originally rejected in 2015, but we kept at it, kept at it, and then through the Rice Commission work in that particular more recent review, now we’ve seen five independent directors added to the, to the NCAA highest governing board and I think that will result in, you know, some, some thoughtful discussions, having that objectivity at the table.


TB: I wonder about recommendations that get implemented, whether it’s layers away or directly implemented. You said it started in ‘80s. How did that work then? Were those… were recommendations implemented in the ‘80s, ‘90s, early 2000s?


AP: Mm-hmm.


TB: Because now you see it more, we talk about the collaboration aspect of it.


AP: Right.


TB: We talk about the history.


AP: Sure.


TB: About the implementation.


AP: Well, the original report that, that was considered kind of the, the Knight Commission’s landmark report was in 1991. And it was, you know, the title of that, I think, is important today because the title was keeping faith with the student athlete. So it was very focused on the student athlete, but its goal was very oriented to major… bringing about major academic reforms. And that ‘91 report really did lay out a roadmap for reforms that pretty much was followed throughout the ‘90s in terms of increasing eligibility requirements, progress toward degree, things that would, would ultimately improve the graduation rates and the importance, the priority placed on education.


And then we started looking at the incentives, you know, how are we incentivizing college sports, things, you know, like changing the requirements to be in a postseason championship. So there’s some academic accountability to that. We also pushed a long time for including academic incentives in the NCAA revenue distribution formula. Again, those things took much longer than what we thought they should take. And there are still things that we’re working on today that, you know, I think, because of a lot of pressures on the system, the NCAA now does not have the luxury of time that it had before in terms of implementing, you know, some of the changes that, that we’ll likely see in the next, you know, two to three years.


So I think, you know, in terms of, you know, the evolution of our work, but also building allies within the system, and trying to, you know, be helpful to conferences, institutions that want to help bring about change. We’re working hard at, you know, being more intentional about making those connections to, you know, really help within that system.


TB: Right. There’s a big… there’s a big aspect of having your ear to the ground, right, understanding what’s happening now, how it was affected by the past, and then what’s going to happen in the future. Everybody at this table’s job kind of is tied to that, right? You all…


TT: Yeah, the now, the now for the Knight Commission is not only timely, it’s really important because there… we’re dealing with issues that college athletics is dealing with now. Coach certification is an example. You know, it’s hard to believe that the NCAA basketball coaches still have no certification program in place. We’ve had some good success in pushing that along. Looking at name, image and likeness; looking at the governance structure moving forward, how to handle college football and the revenues that have just really separated schools from one another because of resource differences, all those things are on the Knight Commission’s agenda. They’re difficult issues, really difficult. The name, image and likeness is so complicated, and there are so many perspectives that are out there to be shared. You know, our objective would be to, as consultants, we try to help our commissioners come up with a plan that is in alignment with higher ed, tied to higher ed in some way, but also benefits the student athletes and allows them to benefit from their own right. So there are a lot of things today that the Knight Commission is working on, you might not see them, they’re like the, you know, the duck underneath the water, where their legs are just a little, wet feet are going hard to try to make some, some differences in the way…


TB: Is it even possible to think about the future? I mean, with so many things that will affect the future now, I mean, the thought of trying to think 5 and 10 years out seems like it’s probably hard to do.


AP: Now, I mean, and that, and that’s really is what… why the Knight Commission exists and we really, you know, it’s important the Knight Foundation has funded our work. And sometimes it’s not that as an example in 2001 when the Knight Commission said, “There’s got to be some kind of academic threshold for postseason eligibility. Postseason eligibility is… being a postseason, being a champion is a great incentive and privilege in college sports. And the team should first have to meet some kind of academic obligation. That seems elementary now. But in 2001, it was seen as idealistic and pie in the sky. And it didn’t mean, you know, looking back on that now, you know, you could look at it and say, it really wasn’t a bad idea. Its time was just not there yet. And that’s like a lot of things with any kind of public policy change is you have to have organizations that are working on what this should look like so then when the environment is ready for that, you can move that forward. Name, image and likeness is another example in 2008. We had a public meeting about video games and, and, you know, some of the emerging technologies and the money that was coming out of video games. And is the system equitable in the use of name, image, and likeness? After that the O’Bannon suit was filed. And we’ve seen how that’s played itself out.


TT: It was 12 years ago.


TB: Right.


AP: Yeah. We did a paper in 2016 after the O’Bannon suit was filed about how, how would a model work with name, image and likeness. And so, some of those conversations we had, even though we didn’t come to a consensus and put forth a model, it’s helpful to this more urgent conversation we’re having now because we, we feel at least from our perspective that we’re pretty informed about all different aspects of it so we can at least ask the right questions. I think it’s important to say that we’ve never pretend to have all the answers. And… but, but we have been in a place where we can, I think, ask the uncomfortable questions that then will help, you know, bring people together to kind of work together towards the result we all want to see.


TB: And there’s a couple more questions here before we wrap. Mike, I wonder about you, you’re the on-campus practitioner in this conversation. How do you even do your job when, when you’re thinking about all these things that affect the industry, all these things that affect the student athletes, that affect the department you work in, but you have to focus on what’s important for you to do to be able to accomplish what you need to accomplish?


MC: Well, I think if you’re in a role, like I am on campus, ideally you’re starting from principles, core values and those types of things. And so, those, for myself anyway, I think are completely interrelated topics and being able to help decision making, guide decision making, from a fundamental set of values that are… that surround the student athlete experience, surround education, the role of athletics in higher education. So those are pretty easily put together and seamless pieces. And then you get down into a lot of different… I’ll call them get into the weeds in a lot of different ways. You know, when you work with coaches directly, coaches have a very different worldview about the pressures they’re under, the expectations for winning, their interactions and relationships with the student athletes, the types of things that can happen related to student athletes transferring, student athletes who have professional aspirations versus those who don’t. So being in those conversations in a real world aspect on a daily basis, I think helps inform the work with the Knight Commission and simultaneously that work with the Knight Commission helps to bring some of those things back onto campus into policy discussions at the campus level or individual conversations with coaches and athletes to figure out, does, does what we’re talking about theoretically and from a value standpoint, fit with the practical day to day? And in a lot of cases, it does. And in some cases you go, well, that might have to be tweaked a little bit because it doesn’t align in the following year.


TB: Yeah, that’s what I wonder, right. You come into those conversation on campus very well-educated, right, from working in the role you worked here with the Knight Commission. So, I guess, it is that, like, is this, is this in theory, or is this something that we probably can implement over the next couple years? Or, how does this affect what, you know, what we’re trying to do here? That’s, that’s what I was wondering in terms of being a practitioner on campus.


TT: You know, that’s the beauty of having consultants who are involved in the daily operation or have a lot of experience in that to inform the commission about will it work.


TB: Right.


TT: You know, and what are the… what’s the best strategy to get that done? So Michael is a great example of how important that role is, I think, at the Commission.


TB: Right.


AP: One of the things that we’ve, we’ve done that I wanted to say in closing is just, you know, we’ve received… one of our priorities too is to provide educational resources. We’ve, we’ve invested a lot of money, in fact, in trying to provide some transparency about where the money comes from and where the money goes in college sports. And another one, our consultants, Scott Hirko, helps lead that effort. But we have a database that shows in Division I for public schools where the money comes from, where the money goes. It’s called CAFI database, C-A-F-I, database.kightcommission.org. So all those things we think are helpful to, you know, all of what we’re trying to figure out which is ultimately impacting and the positive experience of the student athlete.


TB: It sound like it’s a wonderful thing for the Knight Commission and for the industry as a whole. Thank you for joining us on the AthleticDirectorU podcast.


AP: Thank you.


TT: Thank you, Tai.


MC: Thanks, Tai.


TB: That was Todd Turner. Todd is the founder and president of Collegiate Sports Associate; Amy Perko who is the CEO of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics; and Mike Cross, Mike is the associate athletic director for business development at Penn State and co-founder of Athlete Viewpoint. And, of course, I am Tai Brown with Athletic Director U. And keep in mind, the role of a leader is to create and maintain an environment that people want to be a part of. And as always, be better tomorrow than you are today.