Knight Commission relies on ‘moral persuasion’ to change college sport

Len Elmore
Courtesy of Knight Commission

Since 1989, the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics has offered recommendations on how big-time college sports can come close to or fully adopt its mission: “…that all athletes, regardless of race and gender, should be treated equitably.”

Earlier this year the Commission introduced the C.A.R.E. Model (Connecting Athletics Revenues with the Educational Model of College Sports). It has five core principles:  transparency, independent oversight, gender equity, broad-based sports opportunities, and financial responsibility.  

The group also suggested a new way of distributing the $3 billion-plus in annual revenue generated from big-time football and men’s basketball. But like previous Knight reports, studies, and recommendations, the model leaves the main question unanswered.

Will college sports ever change in favor of the players, the main generators in the billion-dollar college sports engine? Will they eventually adopt a real revenue sharing plan to replace the existing “everyone gets paid but the players” system?

Len Elmore, a longtime advocate of college sports, strongly sees it as a good preparation for young men and women for life after college, especially those of color. College sports, nonetheless, must change and become more equitable to all, not just some, Elmore told the MSR.

As a result, he wasn’t totally surprised that the C.A.R.E. idea didn’t get much mainstream media traction: “It’s not sizzling or sexy,” noted Elmore, a former college and pro athlete. As a lawyer, he once was a Brooklyn, NY assistant district attorney. 

Now he teaches sports media, athlete activism, and social justice at Columbia University graduate school. Since 2020, Elmore has been the Commission co-chair.

“There is a certain bias [in mainstream media] that the headlines go to those who are more focused [on other matters],” said Elmore. “My personal opinion is that the media is looking for something that leads to Facebook.

“I am who I am,” declared Elmore, who also does analysis on college basketball telecasts.  “Whatever defines me as a professional, as a human being, a lot of that comes from my experience as a collegiate athlete. As a student, I would never have been able to go to college, at least in the sense that I went to a large Division I school like the University of Maryland.

“I recognized doors can open for young people of color,” he added, “and the concept of leadership, and many of the things that are coveted by corporate America.”

Elmore mentioned a survey of college presidents, athletic directors, and other school leaders who mostly preferred “a more stable future for college sports” that is more aligned with education, which is what the C.A.R.E. model promotes. But he quickly pointed out that these same folk, namely the presidents, could be more involved in forcing change—if they really want change.  

“We don’t have the power to change,” said Elmore of the Knight Commission. “The Knight Commission essentially is a reform-minded group. We do it through the power of moral persuasion.”

He and other Commission members are dedicated to change in college sports. “I’m thankful for the folks with whom I’ve been able to collaborate.

“We’re not making any money, doing it out of love and the ability to give something back to a system that’s given me everything that allows me to be who I am.”