NCAA proposal could boost major conferences

William Sutton
William Sutton
Published July 13, 2014

The Florida Gators have the latest equipment for reviewing game film, while Florida State gets an edge by using expensive GPS technology to track the most efficient movements for football players at practice.

Schools in the SEC, ACC and other major conferences seemingly have all the advantages, multimillion-dollar practice facilities for football and basketball and chartered planes for travel. Money pours in from television networks, including branded entities such as the Big Ten Network.

College sports always has had its haves and have-nots. Now, members of the most powerful leagues want to make it official.

Level playing field? Not so much.

The 65 schools in the five most prestigious conferences — ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC — are asking the NCAA's Division I Board of Directors to approve legislation next month that would grant them "autonomy," essentially the right to make some of their own rules.

Advocates insist it's an overdue progression, occurring amid prominent legal efforts to alter the college sports world order. Even as some Northwestern football players seek to unionize, former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon is waging an antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA, seeking Division I football and basketball players' rights to share revenue over the use of their names and likenesses.

"The problem is that the NCAA has not evolved," said Dr. William Sutton, director of USF's Sport and Entertainment Management program and one of the nation's most respected sports-marketing practitioners.

"It's not evolved and changed to meet the needs of its constituents. So now it's almost cataclysmic. … All these things happening now are like Armageddon. But it has to be."

With autonomy, "Power Five" schools could use the billions generated from bowl and TV revenue to increase the value of scholarships to cover what's referred to as "cost of attendance." They could introduce an array of benefits (i.e. insurance, continuing education, money for families to travel to sporting events) and perhaps ease transfer restrictions.

Those leagues say it's all about improving the athletes' experiences.

"The five major conferences are saying that we want to have the autonomy to make decisions that are rational for us that may not apply to everybody," Southern Cal athletic director Pat Haden said. "We have to acknowledge that some schools and athletic departments have more resources than others, and each needs to do the right things for their student-athletes. The potential new rules, like feeding players or paying the full cost of attendance, would be considered 'permissive legislation' I would hope, so each school would figure out on its own what it can do up to the allowable, but it is not mandatory."

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But where does that leave the other 286 Division I programs, including USF and UCF? Those schools recruit and compete against Power Five schools. If they can't offer scholarships and benefits on par with the major schools, how can they hope to beat them in competition?

"They're trying to go the other way and create an even wider gap between the haves and have-nots," UCF football coach George O'Leary told the Orlando Sentinel. "I think some of these schools have forgotten where they came from."

If a figurative line in the sand exists, it's in the form of competition rules.

While eluding specifics, Power Five officials have indicated a desire to ease transfer restrictions to the point of de facto free agency. At the height of speculation: abolishing the mandate requiring major sport athletes to sit out a year when they move from one Division I school to another and expanding the number of annual scholarships in some sports.

"Those kind of things are where we're really going to put our foot down," USF athletic director Mark Harlan said.

But the Power Five's autonomous stomp figures to be more forceful, more reverberating, perhaps Orwellian in nature.

All Division I-A schools are equal, but some are more equal than others.

"There's going to be a distinction, there's just no question about that," Sutton said. "I don't see any way that it doesn't happen."

But SEC athletic directors, including Florida's Jeremy Foley, said the rules adopted by the Power Five wouldn't prohibit other NCAA members from following suit — provided they could afford it — and they would acknowledge a disparity that already exists.

To think that a star football player is going to choose Florida or Florida State solely because those institutions are able to provide more meal opportunities than schools from the other conferences is nonsense, advocates say. A majority of those caliber players are already choosing the big-name programs.

What is more relevant, they say, is finding solutions to help better take care of student-athletes, particularly football and basketball players who bring in the majority of revenue.

"I think some sort of stipend is fair," Florida football coach Will Muschamp said. "I don't think we realize where some of these kids come from. There are some hardship situations out there. … Being able to get a young man home in an emergency situation, those are things to me (that are needed). … As much money as we're making, geez, you'd think we'd be able to afford it."

Coaches throughout the Power Five conferences appear to be unanimous in their belief that change is necessary.

"I do think the reforms that the NCAA are proposing, I think they're a good thing," said North Carolina coach Larry Fedora, a former Florida offensive coordinator. "In what I've read, I would say that's it right now, just the cost (that's the biggest hurdle). I don't think there's any way you could say that feeding your players more, providing more for them can be a negative thing. I don't see it that way."

"Full cost of attendance, I think room and board, tuition, books and fees, if they can help find a way to stipend some of these issues that these young men go through, I think it's a tremendous thing," FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said.

The five conferences insist they are not trying to break away from the NCAA, although Alabama coach Nick Saban has said he would like to see a day when the Power Five conference schools only play against each other in football, further distancing themselves from the NCAA's other conferences.

Even if the NCAA passes legislation allowing the five to legislate themselves, the schools within the power conferences must still decide what changes will be instituted. How would "cost of attendance" be determined? Which athletes would be eligible for enhanced benefits? What transfer and eligibility rules would apply?

It is clear from preliminary discussions, agreement will require compromise. But those conferences believe inevitably it is time to try.

"There's some things that need to get done relating to students and how we do our business," Foley said. "We haven't had the ability to do that. We're not trying to upset the apple cart so to speak, but I think that time has come. It's just time for certain schools, those in the larger conferences, to have more autonomy on certain issues."