NCAA President Mark Emmert believes mid- and lower-level members are gradually adjusting to Power Five conference school's autonomy and increased financial outlay to athletes because of cost-of-attendance stipends.
Emmert spoke to University of South Carolina Board of Trustee members Friday, part of his visit to the school that included meeting with athletes and attending Thursday night's women's basketball game.
In 2014, the NCAA Division I Board of Directors approved letting members of the five biggest conferences—the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 12 and Southeastern Conference—have autonomy on various issues in their respective leagues, including four-year scholarships and increasing the cost of athletic scholarships.
Emmert said having a one-size fits all structure is challenging when athletic budgets range from $10 million at one school to the $106 million South Carolina projects this school year.
"But everybody's recognizing that's that is just the reality of the world like so many things in life," Emmert said. "They're all trying to adjust to it."
That's even true in the SEC where the cost of attendance increases—as set by figures sent from the financial aid office to the Department of Education—range from $5,666 given athletes at Tennessee to $3,528 given athletes at Texas A&M.
Emmert said schools with modest budgets are not trying to beat Power 5 members in a financial competition of who has the highest budget, but have opportunities in NCAA championships to make a name for themselves by knocking off some of the big-name opponents.
"That's one of the reasons why March Madness is so popular, because Mercer can go beat Duke, and for Mercer that's a big deal," Emmert said.
The group of 65 schools in the Power Five leagues also can pass rules on their own without the backing of other NCAA member conferences. But what the NCAA will continue to fight against, Emmert said, is the notion of athletes as school employees.
A group of Northwestern football players tried to form a union, but the National Labor Relations Board declined to assert jurisdiction in the case effectively ending the effort. And just this week, Emmert said a group of Penn athletes lost a court case claiming they were employees and deserved to make minimum wage.
"I for one and I know this is supported by nearly everyone in higher education, don't believe that student-athletes should become employees," Emmert said.
Where the Indianapolis-based NCAA's focus remains, Emmert told trustees, is enhancing the experience of athletes, including finding additional free time in the round-the-clock world of major college sports.
Emmert said he's not in favor Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh's plan to take his team to Florida for practice on spring break. The issue on whether this should continue, he said, is before the NCAA's Football Oversight Committee.
"They're having a hard time being students and doing what students want to do," Emmert said.
University President Harris Pastides, head of the NCAA Division I Board, said Emmert has led the organization "at a true time of reform."
Emmert expects autonomy issues to lessen as all NCAA members, big and small, continue to run athletic departments in this era.
"The full cost of attendance model makes great sense," Emmert said. "I'm very supportive of that."