NCAA Endorses Granting "Big 5" Conferences Autonomy

Brian Spurlock-US PRESSWIRE

B1g, if true.

On Thursday, the NCAA moved one step closer to establishing a new structure in AugustPer an NCAA release:

New voices would be added: the chair of the Division I Student-Athlete Advisory Committee; the chair of a new group tentatively called the Council; and the most senior Division I member of the Faculty Athletics Representatives Association's executive committee. The council chair would always be an athletics director, giving that constituency an automatic spot on the board. [...]

The council, composed of at least 60 percent athletics directors, would have 38 members: one from each conference plus two voting student-athletes and four commissioners (one from the Football Bowl Subdivision, one from the Football Championship Subdivision and two from the remaining conferences). The council would be the final voice on shared-governance rule-making decisions.

[...]

In order to allow the five highest-resource conferences (the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big 12 Conference, Big Ten Conference, Pac-12 Conference and Southeastern Conference) to address their unique challenges, the model would grant them autonomy to make rules on specific matters affecting the interests of student-athletes.

For the first time, the five largest athletics conferences in the land -- the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC -- would be granted autonomy to pass their own rules. In case you haven't noticed, the NCAA is under attack on multiple fronts -- threatened with the unionization of athletes at private schools and multiple lawsuits. This new structure, while it may or may not completely save the NCAA's current model of amateurism, would allow major conference schools to pass new rules that will address many of the issues being brought to light in recent months.

Power conference autonomy would allow those schools to provide athletes with some common-sense benefits they previously could not due to NCAA restrictions. Most involve the welfare of student athletes, including financial support of athletes to cover the full cost of attendance. Other less-defined goals include giving student-athletes a seat at the NCAA governance table, improving academic assistance and shoring up athlete health and safety. Basically, the NCAA is conceding that one size doesn't fit all at the Division I level.

Even though the NCAA is recommending a model by which power conferences have greater autonomy, it's not as though the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC are taking their ball and going home. While those conferences will have the ability to make changes on their own, some of those could also immediately apply to smaller conference schools, while others would require a separate vote by those conferences. Just as Division I's Football Championship Subdivision operates under a different set of guidelines as the Football Bowl Subdivision -- mainly as it relates to scholarship caps -- the "Big 5" would be able to operate under a different set of rules than their smaller conference counterparts.

While it's unlikely that there will be any structural changes to the upcoming College Football Playoff or the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, granting the "Big 5" more autonomy will only serve to widen the gap between those power conference schools and everyone else. Sorry, American Athletic Conference. The NCAA is basically conceding that Ohio State can help athletes a bit more financially and otherwise, even if Bowling Green can't afford to. That playing football at Ohio State is better than playing football at Kent State isn't exactly groundbreaking stuff here, but the playing field will likely be more uneven with the "Big 5" setting its own rules.

The NCAA endorsement of "Big 5" autonomy is seen as a pre-emptive strike against the union movement of its athletes. If the power conference schools can begin to provide the benefits that the College Athletes Players Association (the organization behind the Northwestern union) is looking for, the less likely they'll be to unionize. Or so the theory goes.

However, today's endorsement has no impact on the pending lawsuits against the NCAA. Lawsuits from Ed O'Bannon and Jeffrey Kessler remain and arguably pose an even bigger threat to the NCAA's current model of amateurism. Today's announcement was a step in the right direction, but it may not be enough to stave off wholesale change to the NCAA.

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