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NCAA approves autonomy for the 'Power 5'

8/8/2014

By Steven Marcus

By Steven Marcus

McClatchy-Tribune

The five power conferences, containing 65 of the most high-profile football and basketball programs in college athletics, gained unprecedented authority to invoke rules changes under legislation passed Thursday by the NCAA's board of directors.

The package of changes was approved by a 16-2 vote.

"It does provide degrees of autonomy for the five high-resource conferences," said Wake Forest president Nathan Hatch, who is the board chairman and a key architect of the plan. "This is not complete autonomy. We're still part of Division I, but I think it allows us to provide more benefits to student-athletes."

The need for change was prompted by the five power conferences' desire to have more flexibility to deal with issues that have become hot topics during the past year, such as compensating athletes and health insurance.

The vote is subject to a 60-day override. If the vote is sustained, the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC could begin instituting changes by January. However, if 75 schools vote to override, the board is required to take a second look at the plan. If 125 schools oppose it, it will be suspended until the board schedules a vote to reconsider.

The power schools have until Oct. 1 to create their proposed list of changes, which then would have to be approved through a series of votes within the NCAA board and participating schools.

The major issue is the widely anticipated plan for the power conferences to include so-called athletic stipends, although representatives of the richest conferences insist it would not be akin to paying athletes. Measures could be instituted to add money to scholarships or payments to address costs in addition to tuition, room and board and books and supplies. Insurance benefits for athletes, the size of coaching staffs, recruiting rules and hours spent in each sport also could be changed.

The Ivy League and the Colonial Athletic Association, home to Hofstra's Division I programs, voted against the changes.

"The CAA and Hofstra did not support this particular plan because we felt it did not address the needs of student-athletes across all of Division I," athletic director Jeff Hathaway said. "However, we are focused on student-athlete welfare, and many of the aspects of this proposal are things that we're already permitted to do through past legislation such as academic counseling, career development, degree completion and medical issues."

The power conferences are not expected to challenge the NCAA's rules on infractions.

Stony Brook athletic director Shawn Heilbron said in a statement: "This is a new day for all members of Division I, and my focus is on Stony Brook's growth and evolution so that we can thrive regardless of governance structure."

Increased spending to add money to scholarships or create stipends likely would widen the monetary gap between the biggest schools, which already enjoy lucrative television contracts for football and basketball, and the rest of Division I.

"In some cases the distance is so significant already," said St. John's athletic director Chris Monasch, who supports the measure. "The reality is those particular schools aren't competing for the same athlete. I don't have concerns about that. Conferences like the Big East [where St. John's participates] will have to decide how they want to react to this and what benefits they want to provide to their student-athletes, and my expectation is they'll be all certainly in men's and women's basketball and then really need more information to see how the terrain develops for the other sports."

The NCAA has come under scrutiny in recent months. It has settled two lawsuits for a combined $90 million and is awaiting a judge's decision on a federal lawsuit in which plaintiffs led by former UCLA basketball star Ed O'Bannon have argued college sports' amateurism rules are anti-competitive and allow the organization to operate as an illegal cartel.

Also pending is a decision by the National Labor Relations Board on whether Northwestern football players can form college athletics' first unionized group of athletes.

In light of those developments, Monasch said it behooves the NCAA to address the issues before the court imposes its own rules.

"It could take it out of our hands," he said. "I think the feeling is let's try and handle it inside the house and not have court or even potentially Congress get involved."