Mark Emmert wants the NCAA to fast-track upgrades for college athletes — regardless of whether a player union is pushing for them.
One day before the board of directors meets in Indianapolis and two days before Northwestern football players are scheduled to vote on creating college sports' first union, the NCAA president told The Associated Press that a new governance system could solve many problems by providing more opportunities for college athletes and their families.
"It's the intention of the membership and my hope with the governance (proposal) in place, that the 65 universities in the big five conferences and the other schools can came to a quicker resolution about ways to help student-athletes," Emmert said Wednesday.
A formal vote on the proposal is not expected until at least this summer.
The 57-page draft proposal would give schools in the five biggest conferences (ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC) more autonomy to implement changes deemed to be in the best interests of their athletes. The list could include adding the full cost-of-attendance in scholarships, expanded health insurance, additional help with academic and career counseling, and providing money for the families of athletes to travel to NCAA tournament events.
Back in October 2011, the board approved a stipend that would have given athletes up to about $2,000 per year to cover expenses beyond tuition, room and board, books and fees. Two months later, it was shelved amid opposition from full Division I membership.
Despite having the full support of Emmert, nothing has been happened since then and the criticism has only grown — sometimes from commissioners of the big leagues themselves.
"The group of five would argue we're the ones being sued and attacked," said Morgan Burke, Purdue University's athletic director and a key broker in helping find a consensus on the new structure. "The other schools would say, 'Yeah, but we're competing against you in the championship.'"
Emmert believes this proposal might be the best solution for an NCAA increasingly under fire.
The organization is facing a number of lawsuits, including the potentially landmark Ed O'Bannon case that is seeking compensation for athletes who were depicted in video games, and the possibility of a players' union at Northwestern that is seeking more benefits and better working conditions for college athletes.
Emmert has repeatedly said he opposes unionization, though he acknowledged Wednesday he agrees with some of the concerns raised by labor leaders.
"I think the most interesting response to the Northwestern conversation is when the student-athlete said 'Here's what we're worried about,' I said, 'Great, this is what we've been working on for some time,'" Emmert said, referring to former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter. "These are things we've been talking about since the summer of 2011. There's been a lot frustration that it's taken longer to get where we need to be, but here it is."
Governance isn't the only issue on the board's agenda.
It also will debate proposals to allow athletes to have year-round unlimited meal plans and snacks and a change in transfer rules that would affect a small group of athletes.
The new transfer proposal would give players who receive "hardship waivers" but had good enough grades to compete immediately, one additional year to be granted an extra year to complete their four years of competitive eligibility. Those players would still be required to sit out one year. Even if approved, the new rule would not apply to the growing number of graduate students who transfer to new schools with remaining eligibility.
Last week, the Legislative Council approved an expanded meal plan —drawing plenty of fanfare because it came less than two weeks after Shabazz Napier, the Most Outstanding Player in the men's basketball tournament, said he sometimes went to bed "starving." That proposal had been discussed for months, and fed into the notion that the NCAA system had become too cumbersome.
Emmert wants that to stop.
Other potential changes if the proposal were adopted later this year would give athletic directors, athletes and other university representatives such as faculty athletic reps and senior women administrators a greater voice in the process, and create a committee in which all Division I conferences would be voting members with a weighted system that would allow the five largest conferences to account for 38 to 40 percent of the total vote.
Emmert is convinced this can work.
"We need to be more aggressive with our scholarship model, to earning a bachelor's degree and we can do to help and safety rules and providing (athletes) families with money to travel to postseason events," he said. "It's my hope, and theirs, that the new structure will allow them to concentrate on them and do it with great speed."