The NCAA board of directors will vote Thursday on a proposal that would give the five wealthiest college football conferences the ability to make rules and pass legislation without the approval of the rest of Division I schools.
The autonomy proposal is expected to pass. Here's what you need to know about it:
Q: What do the big conferences want?
A: The 65 schools in Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and Southeastern Conference would get the ability to pass permissive legislation to "enhance the well-being of student-athletes." They want to be allowed to spend their growing revenue on things such as scholarships that cover the full cost of attending college beyond tuition, room and board and books. Those conferences also want to invest more in long-term health care and continuing education and ensure that athletes retain scholarships for four years. Schools in the other 27 Division I conferences can try to do some of those things if they want, but they will not be required to.
Q: Why do those conferences need autonomy to do that?
A: In the past, schools in conferences that don't have the billions of dollars in TV revenues that the so-called Big Five have stood in the way of the Indianapolis-based NCAA passing legislation that would have provide some of those extra benefits to athletes. Specifically, in 2011 a proposal that would have allowed schools to give athletes a $2,000 stipend to cover cost of attendance was overridden by about half of the 355 Division I schools.
Q: Will other conferences try to do what the Big Five want to do?
A: The leaders of the other five conferences that play at the highest level of college football, FBS, have all said their members are prepared to do their best to provide the same additional benefits to student-athletes. Some schools, such as those in the American Athletic Conference or Mountain West, are probably better situated to spend more on athletes than others, such as those in the Sun Belt or Mid-American Conference. But they'll try.
"Will there be greater additional costs? More than likely," Sun Belt Commissioner Benson said at the league's football media day last month. "And yes, there will be challenges, but Sun Belt universities have invested too much not to be part of major college football in the future."
There is concern that schools trying to keep up with the Big Five in revenue sports such as football and men's basketball might not have enough money to fund non-revenue Olympic sports.
Q: Who is against it?
A: There are some in those other conferences who are concerned that giving the Big Five the ability to make their own rules will increase the competitive advantage those schools already have. The most vocal critic has been Boise State President Bob Kustra, who believes autonomy is the Big Five's attempt to keep schools such as his from competing on the highest level. The Broncos, who play in the MWC, have been a football power but have often been shut out of the biggest games, with the biggest payouts.
"The NCAA cannot fall prey to phony arguments about student welfare when the real goal of some of these so-called reformers is create a plutocracy," Kustra wrote in statement released to the media in May, "that serves no useful purpose in American higher education."
Q: Why is this likely to pass?
A: Because the Big Five generate millions in revenue for all NCAA members, and while the leaders of those conferences have repeatedly said they don't want to break away from the rest of Division I, they have also made clear it is an option. So they'll get what they want.
It also helps relieve some of the pressure to reform an outdated amateur sports model, brought in part by a lawsuit that claims athletes deserve revenue from the use of their names and likenesses and a unionization effort from Northwestern football players.
Q: When would it go into effect?
A: The formal start would be in January 2015, at the NCAA convention.
Q: Will fans notice a difference?
A: Not really. Maybe in the long-term some FBS schools will decide it's too expensive to compete at that level and drop down to FCS. And it could be a step toward full separation between the Big Five and the rest of college athletics, but there is nothing to suggest that is imminent. For now, it will look like business as usual.