The National Collegiate Athletic Association finally has acknowledged the obvious: The five wealthiest athletic conferences are in a league of their own in money, facilities and national exposure. The NCAA Division 1 board of directors voted last week to give those five power conferences more autonomy, all but giving up the ghost of the amateur student-athlete. While there are potential hazards, this is a gradual step that should benefit athletes attending universities in those major conferences — including the University of Florida, Florida State University and the University of Miami.
The plan is aimed at giving some independence to five conferences that include 65 universities: The Atlantic Coast Conference, the Big Ten, the Big 12, the Pacific 12, the Southeastern Conference and Notre Dame. Among the likely benefits for athletes in those conferences are a modest stipend to cover expenses not covered now by athletic scholarships, better medical coverage and expanded counseling for both academics and potential careers. Those are all reasonable proposals that would benefit those students while they are in school, protect their earnings potential and better prepare them for life after college, regardless of whether that life includes a professional sports career.
The changes come as the NCAA has been under siege, with its very future in question as the money rolls in from rich television contracts and the gap grows between the superpower conferences and everyone else. There are legitimate arguments that college athletes should share some of the wealth, with a federal lawsuit contesting NCAA rules, a settlement with former football and basketball players for using their images on video games and an upcoming decision from the National Labor Relations Board on whether Northwestern University football players can form a union. The deal to give some independence to the "Power Five" conferences is an attempt quell the unrest from within.
This compromise wisely stops short of paying college athletes salaries. Instead, it enables the schools in these richest conferences to pay athletes stipends of a few thousand dollars to cover expenses not covered by their scholarships. Given the hours team members spend practicing and preparing for games, the situation is really no different from other students working part-time jobs on campus or receiving small paychecks at college newspapers.
There are potential downsides. The biggest conferences will have to ensure that the changes do not erode their commitment to nonrevenue sports and Title IX protections for female athletes. Their teams could wind up dominating football bowl games and championship playoffs in other sports even more than they do now. Universities that are not in these conferences could have a more difficult time recruiting athletes and paying for facilities. What happens to the big time sports aspirations at the University of South Florida and the University of Central Florida, which have recently built or refurbished major athletic facilities but aren't in one of the top five conferences?
The NCAA could change its mind on the new approach, but that is considered unlikely. Clinging to the status quo now only would result in more drastic changes later. This is a logical step forward that recognizes the vast amount of money flowing into the richest conferences and that their student-athletes should get greater benefit from all that cash they help generate.