Football powers seek leeway with NCAA to flex muscle

College sports’ governing body probably will consider new rules in the coming months that allow the most powerful football programs to spend more on their athletes, while giving poorer programs the option to adopt them.

Commissioners from the biggest conferences have complained that rules designed to ensure a level playing field across the 125 schools in the top echelon of the sport are unfair to them.

National Collegiate Athletic Association President Mark Emmert, conference commissioners and athletic directors are discussing changes that may include costly options such as paying athletes a stipend of as much as $4,000 a year. Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said a one-size-fits-all rulebook doesn’t work when schools in the top division range from the University of Texas with a $163.3 million budget to the University at Louisiana-Monroe at $11.3 million.

“The concept of competitive equity through rules management is largely a mirage,” Bowlsby said in an interview. “It hasn’t worked at any level. The majority of the championships at all levels are won by about 80 schools.”

The college football season began last night, when No. 6 South Carolina beat North Carolina 27-10, and No. 24 Southern California topped Hawaii 30-13. Most schools begin play tomorrow, with No. 1 Alabama facing Virginia Tech in Atlanta, No. 2 Ohio State hosting Buffalo and No. 3 Oregon hosting Nicholls State.

Among the type of changes the wealthy schools would propose, Bowlsby said, might be feeding athletes three meals a day, what’s known as the training table, up from the current one meal six days a week.

“It’s an expensive undertaking,” Bowlsby said. “Mid- majors might not want to go to three meals a day, but restraining those that do isn’t right.”

Lifetime scholarships

Big Ten Conference Commissioner Jim Delany has said he wants lifetime scholarships so athletes can return to school to finish their education after attempts at professional sports careers, and a year where academically at-risk athletes don’t play, but still have four years of remaining eligibility.

Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Smith said some rules are silly rather than costly.

In 2005, Smith wanted to put a fence around the parking lot outside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center to protect players from entrepreneurs seeking autographs on jerseys and caps, which they would sell on eBay hours later.

The fence was considered an extra benefit by the NCAA, because it gave the players a private parking lot. Smith says it took dozens of phone calls over several weeks to convince the Indianapolis-based NCAA to let Ohio State build the fence. The school still has to keep the lot open several hours a day for public access.

It’s the sort of issue that players at less popular athletic programs probably don’t face, Smith said in an interview.

$2,000 stipend

The argument over governance of the biggest football programs became public two years ago when Emmert proposed giving scholarship athletes a $2,000 stipend to help pay for living expenses not covered by their scholarships. Some schools are now saying it should be as high as $4,000.

While the richer programs could afford the additional $500,000 to $1 million annual cost, many small programs couldn’t and voted it down.

Athletic directors at schools outside the major conferences — the Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, Atlantic Coast and Southeastern — say they are willing to accept some of the rules being proposed because it won’t change the current state of college football. The powerhouse programs already have a competitive advantage with better weight rooms, academic centers, travel and national television without creating an elite division.

Fourth division?

During Big 12 meetings in May, Emmert said a fourth subdivision of wealthy, elite schools able to afford these changes could be accommodated within the NCAA’s framework. His comments received a positive response from athletic directors and conference commissioners, but talk of a new division seems to have cooled since then.

Athletic directors at some smaller programs say a fourth division is unnecessary because new rules can be written to satisfy the biggest programs. Rather than be excluded from the new division, smaller programs want the option to spend the extra money.

“We’d want the opportunity to decide for ourselves to see if we can afford the stipend,” Rick Hart, athletic director at Southern Methodist University in the American Athletic Conference, said. “Just because our vision is never to become Texas doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be given an opportunity to make decisions about how we want to compete in athletics.”

Same breakdown

Even if the NCAA were to create a fourth division for elite schools, Kent State Athletic Director Joel Nielsen said he doesn’t think it would change the way the association operates.

“I don’t feel it would be as significant as some predict it would be,” Nielsen said. “You will have the same student athletes at Ohio State and Kent State, they will just be resourced differently.”

The difference-maker would be if the top football programs no longer scheduled smaller programs or if they wanted to change the revenue-sharing plan for the college football playoff, Nielsen and other athletic directors said.

Bowlsby and Smith said there had been no talk of changes to the revenue system.

“Those agreements have been negotiated. It’s bedrock as far as I’m concerned,” Bowlsby said. “This isn’t about revenue, it’s about rules.”

January summit

Emmert is planning a summit of Division I schools in January to discuss athletic governance with hopes for making major changes within a year.

Right now, athletic directors and Bowlsby are calling for solutions that avoid segregating the top schools further.

“If you are going about the process of drawing bright lines and saying if you are above the line you can play and below you don’t get to play, that is difficult and hard for somebody left out to accept,” Bowlsby said. “On the other hand, I don’t think there is anything wrong with permissive legislation. We pass rules and if you want to play by them great. And if not, then that is your choice.”

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