The National Collegiate Athletic Association has acknowledged what everyone always knew — that not all college sports programs are the same.
At a meeting in Indianapolis on Thursday, the NCAA Division I board of directors voted to give the five richest conferences greater autonomy, including the right to award cost-of-living stipends, improve health insurance benefits and loosen the rules on player contact with agents. The so-called Big 5 — the Southeastern Conference, the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Pacific-12, the Big Ten and the Big 12 — will also be able to help players’ families in ways they cannot now, like paying for travel to see postseason games.
NCAA member institutions could still override the legislation, but this is unlikely. Under the new rules, the rich will inevitably get richer, able to recruit the best new players, win more end-of-season bowl games and amass larger television audiences and greater revenues.
On the upside, athletes who play for one of the 65 universities in the Big 5 will also benefit, if modestly. They have not won the right to negotiate salaries, or to share in the considerable wealth generated from commercial licensing agreements. But some will receive a few thousand dollars more per year to cover the “full cost of attendance,” and they will gain better medical coverage. That’s better than window dressing but well short of life-changing. On the losing side are smaller schools that will have a harder time competing for top talent; also on that side are purists who cling to the amateur ideal.
But the amateur ideal is just that: an ideal. It is far too late for the NCAA to rein in the commercialization of college sports, so it might as well let certain universities treat their revenue-generating teams more like the business propositions that they really are.
It would not be surprising if, rhetorically, the NCAA continued to pay lip service to the amateur model.
The new autonomy measure is an indication that even the NCAA knows that something has to change — that the big schools are making big money and that the players deserve more generous benefits than what strict amateurism can allow.