INDIANAPOLIS — The biggest schools in college sports are about to get a chance to make their own rules.
The NCAA Board of Directors voted 16-2 on Thursday to approve a historic package of changes that allows the five richest football conferences — the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC — to unilaterally change some of the rules that have applied to all Division I schools for years. Representatives from those leagues representing 65 universities will also benefit from a new, weighted voting system on legislation covering the 350 schools in Division I.
The five largest leagues contend they need more flexibility to solve the day’s hottest controversies, including recruiting and health insurance, and complained long and loud over the past two years that they face more scrutiny than everyone else.
If the decision survives a 60-day override period, the transition to the new system could begin in January.
“It does provide degrees of autonomy for the five high-resource conferences,” said Wake Forest President Nathan Hatch, 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.”
A handful of university presidents who spoke at NCAA headquarters after the vote agreed on one thing: Paying athletes to play is off the table. And it’s very unlikely that the five leagues will design their own policies when it comes to infractions.
But there’s a good chance the five leagues will take steps to add money to scholarships or craft an athlete stipend intended to help cover the so-called full cost of attending college — costs beyond tuition, room and board and books and supplies. That will be millions more in spending by leagues that are already partners in multimillion-dollar TV contracts to show off their top sports of football and basketball.
It is certainly a dramatic new start for an organization that has come under increasing criticism.
Already this year, the NCAA has agreed to settle two lawsuits for a combined $90 million and still awaits a judge’s decision on a federal lawsuit in which plaintiffs led by 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 what would be the first union for college athletes in U.S. history.
While NCAA leaders acknowledge the new system might not quash every legal case or argument, those who helped draft this proposal believe it will give prominent schools greater leeway in addressing the amateurism model and other concerns.
“I think we sometimes have to go back to, ‘Why do people file lawsuits?’ ” said Kansas State President Kirk Schulz, who worked on the plan. “It’s because they can’t get the action they want. It (autonomy) is going to help with some things, not all.”
Commissioners and school leaders from the power conferences have until Oct. 1 to create a wish list of areas where they want autonomy.
Any items that make the list would require majority approval from three of the five leagues and still will need the OK of at least 12 of the 20 presidents or chancellors on the expanded board of directors. Then, one representative from each of the 65 schools in the power-five leagues and three student-athletes from each conference would vote on each item.
Passage would require 48 of the 80 votes and a simple majority of support from schools in at least three of the five conferences or a simple majority of all votes (41) and a simple majority from schools in four of the five leagues to pass.
NCAA President Mark Emmert also said the board could veto an autonomous rule change if it goes too far. He described that situation as “rare.”
The No. 1 priority heading into October is expanding scholarships to cover up to the full cost of attendance. Legislation to give athletes an additional $2,000 to cover college expenses was approved by the board in October 2011 but was overridden later after complaints from smaller schools, spurring the effort to pass the autonomy reforms.
Critics worry that the impact will create an even greater split between wealthy leagues and everyone else in the college athletics’ arms race.
“I think it’s going to be great for those five conferences and that’s about it,” said Gerald Gurney, president of The Drake Group, an NCAA watchdog. “I don’t think it’s going to be a good step for non-revenue sports or for Title IX. We are going to get into a new phase of competition, and there will be no holds barred.”