It's not as if the Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics was a firebrand group in its first incarnation 15 years ago; it was, after all, headed by the presidents of the University of North Carolina and Notre Dame, William C. Friday and the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, old school gentlemen if there ever were.
But established as it was amid a growing sense that big-time college sports were veering out of control, the panel of college presidents, corporate leaders and others had a clear mission: putting pressure on the National Collegiate Athletic Association to clean up its own act before Congress stepped in to do it for them. And with a set of reports in the early 1990s, the commission had a significant effect, helping to motivate a series of changes in the NCAA's academic and other rules over the past decade.
Ever since it announced its return to the scene in 2001, though, the commission has struggled to find a voice. As it met Monday for the first time under its new leader, Thomas K. Hearn Jr., the former president of Wake Forest University, the panel still seemed to be searching for its appropriate role in an era in which the NCAA is led by a former college president and has made progress -- exactly how much is widely debated -- on some issues central to the commission last time around, particularly the comparatively poor academic progress of athletes in football and, especially, basketball.
Throughout its daylong meeting -- which included a private session with Myles Brand, the NCAA's president, and a public discussion with the commissioners of several major conferences -- and in a news conference afterward, the panel's leaders made clear that they see it collaborating with rather than challenging the NCAA, given what Hearn called the "marked change in the atmosphere" within the association.
"This is a time of transition for the Knight Commission," said Hearn, who during the 1980s and early 1990s stood out among college presidents as one of the most vocal and passionate proponents for meaningful change in big-time college sports. "We are seeking to put ourselves in a place where we could be maximally useful to the plans that the NCAA has."
The commission's relatively upbeat assessment of the current status of big-time college sports was particularly notable during the discussion with the conference commissioners, several of whom said they believed that sports officials had received too little credit for progress they had made in tackling some of the bigger problems of a decade or more ago, like excessive rule breaking.
"The enterprise has not really gotten the credit it needs to get for what we've done in terms of compliance with regulations," said Jim Delany, commissioner of the Big Ten Conference, who appeared along with Britton Banowsky of Conference USA, Carolyn Schlie Femovich of the Patriot League, Michael Slive of the Southeastern Conference, and John Swofford of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Several Knight Commission members joined Delany in self-congratulation. "I am so weary of people complaining about the fact that reform is not working," said Peter Likins, president of the University of Arizona. "We need to celebrate our ... accomplishments more than we do," added Michael F. Adams, president of the University of Georgia.
Neither the league commissioners nor the Knight commissioners implied that they believed college sports doesn't still have its problems, and substantial ones at that. But in general, they seemed to coalesce around the centrist approach of what Delany called "incremental change" rather than "seismic, earthquake-like" reform.
The Knight panel "set an aggressive agenda in the early '90s," Delany said in an interview. "Now it seems like it's going to be more collaborative -- more like a think tank with ideas and concepts."
Brand, the NCAA president, credited the Knight panel's "ground-breaking report" in 1991 with prodding the NCAA to firmly entrench college presidents atop its administrative structure and taking other steps to try to restore academic and financial integrity to the enterprise. "Now its role has changed," Brand said. "Because we have a robust reform movement, this can become a group that supports and is actively engaged in supporting that movement, which still raising hard questions when necessary."
Brand said the commission could play a useful role both in taking on those groups that actively oppose efforts to rein in the excesses of big-time sports and in providing a more realistic and balanced counterpoint to faculty critics like the Drake Group -- which the NCAA chief termed "radical" -- that he said has the goal of "dislodging intercollegiate athletics from higher education."
The danger for the Knight Commission is that one person’s "realism" is another’s toothlessness.
Carol A. Cartwright, president of Kent State University and a member of the Knight panel, seemed to recognize that danger. “The outside pressure that the Knight Commission brought to bear in the past caused a number of groups to take seriously issues like presidential control, and now that they have, there’s no point in taking the position that outside pressure has to be kept up at the same level as before.
“When we have a shared agenda,” she added, “we want to be cooperative. But the commission will be taking on new issues as we see them, and it may be that we have to take on that pressure-point role again. We’re reserving that right for ourselves.”