The NCAA's board of directors took the first step toward shifting power to the five largest football conferences on Thursday, endorsing a 57-page plan that calls for giving 65 of the nation's biggest schools more autonomy in how to fund scholarships, handle health care and decide other increasingly hot-button issues involving their athletes.
If approved later this year, schools in the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC could implement some rules on their own and would get more voting power over legislation that would affect every NCAA member school.
A formal vote on the recommendations is tentatively scheduled for the board's August meeting, and if it passes then, the transition could begin this fall.
Supporters insist the changes are long overdue.
"We (the big schools) have some issues we've got to deal with, but you've got to get a way to get the issues into the process," Purdue University athletic director Morgan Burke said. "We've got enough flashpoints out there that we need to build some credibility with the fan base. We've just got work to do and if the governance system is impeding these issues, we've got to overhaul the governance system."
The endorsement came one day before Northwestern football players were scheduled to vote on whether to create what would be the first union for college athletes in U.S. history. NCAA President Mark Emmert this week suggested the changes within the NCAA will address some of the issues raised by those backing the unionization effort.
Burke and Missouri athletic director Mike Alden spent months before reaching a consensus on the plan among the roughly 350 Division I athletic directors.
Even lower-profile conferences believe in the general outline, though they acknowledge some additional details still need to be worked out.
"Do I think it can work? Probably," Horizon League commissioner Jon LeCrone said. "Is it perfect? Probably not. But I think it's going to work better than what we've got now."
If approved, the 65 schools in the five big conferences would be granted autonomy to implement some of the most dramatic changes in college sports — though it would require a two-thirds majority for approval.
While the list of autonomous items has not been finalized, it is likely to include issues such as providing money to students that goes uncovered by traditional scholarships; expanded insurance, including coverage for pro prospects; more resources for academic and career counseling; and funding to help athletes' families travel to NCAA tournaments. Other components that could be added include creating mandatory break times from sports, a change that would allow athletes to pursue careers away from the playing field and still maintain their eligibility and even transfer rules.
Critics contend the NCAA is only starting to move on these issues now because players are threatening to unionize.
But Burke, Emmert and others have repeatedly noted these issues have been on the agenda for months or years and had gotten bogged down in the Indianpolis-based NCAA's cumbersome approval process.
"I only wish the association could move that fast," Emmert said when asked if this was a response to the union movement. "It's taken longer than anybody wanted, but we got it done and that's a good thing."
What's still unclear is how well this plan will work.
Still to be determined is how, or if, the other 27 Division I conferences might apply measures approved through the autonomy rules.
"If it's approved by the five conferences, the Horizon League should decide if it wants to adopt that approach," said LeCrone, whose league approved providing the full cost-of-attendance for its athletes after the measure initially passed in October 2011.
Board Chairman Nathan Hatch, the president at Wake Forest, said even if the new governing structure does pass in August, the current committees will remain in place until the NCAA's annual convention in January to ensure a smooth transition.
In other moves Thursday, the board approved a measure to give a small group of students who receive "hardship waivers" to transfer to a new school one additional year to complete their eligibility and to provide unlimited meals and snacks year-round to all athletes — an issue that drew national attention when men's basketball tournament Most Outstanding Player Shabazz Napier of Connecticut said he sometimes went to bed "starving."
But the bigger focus Thursday was finding a way to make the NCAA work more efficiently.
"To do nothing is absolutely wrong and to make a good faith effort is the absolute right thing to do," Burke said. "So let's put the best minds around it, give it time and let it work."