An NCAA rule that allows colleges to provide student-athletes with unlimited meals and snacks went into effect last week.
By this time next year, Division I athletes might be able to eat more, practice less and receive additional money beyond their scholarship.
College sports are about to change in a profound way.
A landmark proposal expected to pass Thursday could result in a sea change that provides more benefits to student-athletes and more control of governance to power conferences.
The NCAA’s board of directors will vote on a proposal that gives the five major conferences — the so-called “Power 5” — autonomy in making decisions that benefit athletes. The measure is expected to pass, clearing the way for significant reform to the NCAA’s traditional model that is widely viewed as antiquated in the booming business of college athletics.
“If you like what you see in intercollegiate athletics right now,” Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said, “you’re going to be disappointed when the change comes, because it’s coming.”
The vote on autonomy for the Power 5 — the ACC, SEC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 — represents a historic moment in a debate that has gained momentum in recent years: How should athletes be rewarded as mega-contracts for telecast rights pump hundreds of millions of dollars into college sports?
The NCAA has 346 Division I members of vastly different size and financial means. The Power 5 has sought autonomy to make rules that fit their needs and ability to offer athletes more benefits. The Power 5 threatened to break away from the NCAA and form its own division, but the autonomy proposal gives those 65 schools more flexibility in creating rules.
At the top of their wish list is a full-cost scholarship, which provides athletes money in addition to room, board and tuition. The full-cost scholarship likely would give athletes $2,000 to $5,000 annually for spending money.
Pac-12 presidents released a letter that outlined other possible proposals, including increased medical and insurance benefits, guaranteed scholarships for four years and decreased time demands during the season.
The Power 5 has until Oct. 1 to submit a list of proposals that could be adopted in January.
“I do anticipate that [the list] will capture the autonomy issues that are important to us for assisting our student-athlete in the 21st century in a way that makes sense,” Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said.
The autonomy vote comes at a time of turmoil for the NCAA. The governing body faces different lawsuits related to compensation for athletes. Northwestern football players are attempting to unionize. The NCAA recently settled a $75 million concussion lawsuit. And Bowlsby, the top Big 12 official, blasted the NCAA’s rules enforcement office for showing a lack of oversight.
“It’s not an understatement to say that cheating pays,” he said.
Now, the NCAA’s structure will be transformed with the Power 5 set to gain autonomy. Bowlsby supports the legislation but worries that it could bring unintended consequences such as the elimination of men’s nonrevenue sports as schools institute full-cost scholarships and other benefits.
“There may be tension among and between sports on campus and institutions that have different resources,” he said.
Bowlsby noted that athletes in football and basketball don’t necessarily work harder than other sports but “they just happen to have the blessing of an adoring public,” he said.
The legislation also could create a larger divide between the Power 5 and everyone else. Smaller schools fear that full-cost scholarships will put them at a disadvantage in recruiting because they can’t afford those additional finances.
Akron athletic director Tom Wistrcill has been on both sides of that line. He previously worked as a senior associate athletic director for the Gophers and now he oversees a department that is outside the Power 5.
Wistrcill said he’s not as “afraid” of the changes as others in his shoes, but he acknowledged the challenges in trying to keep up with the Power 5. A full-cost scholarship would cost an additional $680,000 annually for his department, which might be unrealistic with a $25 million budget that’s funded 75 percent by the university.
However, Akron won the men’s soccer national championship in 2010 and competes against the top Division I programs in recruiting. Wistrcill said that puts his program in a tough spot if it doesn’t offer similar benefits. Schools outside the Power 5 can adopt similar measures if they so choose.
“If we’re going to compete nationally in those sports, we need to provide the full grant-in-aid, ” Wistrcill said. “Every school is going to have to make a decision on what they can afford.”
Whatever challenges arise from autonomy for power conferences and more benefits for athletes, leaders in college athletics realized status quo was no longer an acceptable option.
“We are not deaf to the din of discontent across collegiate athletics that has dominated the news, ” SEC Commissioner Mike Slive said. “In the words of former President Dwight David Eisenhower, I quote, ‘Neither a wise man nor a brave man lies down on the tracks of history to wait for the train of the future to run over him.’ ”