The National Collegiate Athletic Association’s biggest athletic programs have been granted partial autonomy, a move that eventually might give athletes at the richest schools a piece of the billion-dollar industry.
The restructuring is part of an overhaul of the NCAA’s governance, approved Thursday in a 16-2 vote by its directors. The members of the five wealthiest conferences—which accounted for 24 of the 25 top-ranked football teams last season—can now begin to consider offering athletes benefits such as extra money beyond what current scholarships allow or increased medical coverage.
The changes may also further increase the wealth gap between those 65 schools and the rest of the Indianapolis-based NCAA’s roughly 350 Division I members, a gap that Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said already existed.
“To suggest that the bottom 200 schools in Division I are involved in any sort of competition from an arms standpoint with Big 12 schools or the other four high-visibility conferences is just not accurate,” Bowlsby said two days ago in an interview following a conference event in New York. “That’s a mirage.”
The dramatic changes come with the NCAA, its conferences and member institutions under scrutiny about whether athletes should be compensated for the money they help generate. That includes an antitrust lawsuit led by former UCLA basketball forward Ed O’Bannon over the use of student likenesses, and an effort by Northwestern University football players to form the first union in college sports.
“These changes are not happening voluntarily, this is the result of the pressure that players have put on the NCAA for a number of years now,” said Ramogi Huma, founder and president of the College Athletes Players Association, the group that is trying to unionize.
In current broadcast contracts alone, the NCAA and its five richest leagues—the Atlantic Coast, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and Southeastern conferences—are guaranteed more than $31 billion. That doesn’t include other sources of revenue such as sponsorships, merchandise sales, ticket sales and booster donations.
NCAA rules are currently applied evenly to each of Division I’s 32 conferences and roughly 350 member institutions, which Kansas State Athletic Director John Currie said can create inequalities. The University of Texas at Austin had $138.4 million in athletic revenue in the fiscal year ended June 2013; nearby Texas State generated $13.4 million.
“It’s hard to solve issues that affect so few, when everyone wants to weigh in,” Currie said.
Mike Aresco, commissioner of the American Athletic Conference, said that while he would have liked the AAC to have been included in the group being given autonomy, it won’t affect the long-term outlook for the league. The AAC’s University of Central Florida was the only football team currently outside of the five autonomous conferences to finish last year ranked in the AP’s Top 25.
“We may not have television deals the size that they have, but we have resources and we know there are certain things we need to do for student athletes,” said Aresco, whose schools already committed to boosting scholarships to meet the full cost of attendance. ’’We see this as ’five plus one.’ We want to make that five [become] six.’’
The changes come after months of feedback from NCAA administrators. Commissioner Mark Emmert has said the changes are a commitment to support student athletes and allow them a larger voice in decision-making.
Under the new structure, the autonomous conferences could start making independent decisions within their group as early as next year. That group of 65 universities includes Notre Dame, which is independent in football and an ACC member for most other sports.
Among the possible changes being discussed are the expansion of scholarships to cover the full cost of attendance, typically a few thousand dollars per year more than what the NCAA currently allows. Bowlsby said there’s also been discussion of better medical coverage, and possible changes to eligibility rules.
Should the autonomous group eventually vote to increase student benefits, it may affect recruiting. Selvin Young, who won a national title at Texas in 2005 and played two NFL seasons with the Denver Broncos, said differing opportunities would have changed his approach to schools.
“The way I look at it is—maybe that guy could have gone to LSU, but he was in a situation such as myself where I did not want to leave the Houston area because I could not leave my mom and my little brothers, not because I was scared, but because I was the working bread-winner of the family,” Young said. “There will be a lot of guys forced to leave and go farther from home because now the pool of schools offering the top opportunity has shrunk.”
The changes, while a potential step toward benefiting the labor that generates billion of dollars, may force smaller schools to go beyond their means, according to David Ridpath, a sports administration professor at Ohio University. Ridpath is president-elect of the Drake Group, a collection of university faculty members who since 1999 have called for reform of an athletic system that they say puts money over academics.
“The arms race will escalate, mostly by those who should not be in it in the first place,” Ridpath said in an e-mail.
The number of scholarships awarded per sport will remain the same for all Division I sports at all schools, as will academic standards, membership requirements and most recruiting provisions. The New York Times said that any Division I school or league can opt into the autonomous conferences’ rules.
Those limits, plus the option for other schools to join, may help narrow the gap between schools in the autonomous leagues and others. Like Aresco of the AAC, Conference USA commissioner Britton Banowsky has said his league is in favor of paying athletes in some sports the full cost of attending. He said the stipend would range from $1,500 to $5,000 per athlete at C-USA schools.
Bowlsby and Aresco said it was too early to know how much schools in their conferences were willing to spend as part of the change.
Some schools have started. Indiana and Southern California, both members of the power conferences, have said they will offer full four-year athletic scholarships. Most NCAA scholarships are one-year renewables.
In addition to the changes in autonomy, the NCAA board Thursday approved plans for the Council, which is responsible for the day-to-day operation of Division I. The five major conferences will have 37.5 percent of the vote on the Council, same as the group comprised of college football’s second level and non-football conferences. Student-athletes and faculty representatives will have 3.1 percent each.
For Huma, who won varsity football letters at UCLA in 1995, 1997 and 1998 and is president of the National College Players Association, it’s too early to tell if yesterday’s news will mean positive change for NCAA athletes. He said there remains distrust between athletes and administrators, and there is no guarantee that the major conferences will deliver on the reform they’ve discussed.
“We might be looking at half-hearted promises that are really more of trojan horse for the power conferences to get more power in other things,” he said. “This is potentially a step in the right direction, but it remains to be seen.”