News From Terre Haute, Indiana

June 3, 2014

College powerhouses force change upon NCAA

Tom Lindley
CNHI News Service

— Leaders of the Big Ten conference are joining a growing number of college athletic powers calling for more “autonomy” – a way of telling the NCAA that major change is coming one way or another.

Leaders of the "Power Five" conferences – the ACC, Big 12, Pac-12, and now Big Ten – say they want more leeway in addressing issues that confront college athletic programs.

They're hamstrung in attempts at reform, which get voted down at NCAA meetings by smaller schools with fewer resources. Those smaller institutions, on the other hand, have long feared that liberalizing the rules would give richer schools an even bigger recruiting and competitive advantage.

A statement issued by the Big Ten Council of Presidents and Chancellors at the end of last weekend’s meeting was firm, if not threatening:

“While the NCAA Board of Directors' Steering Committee on Governance has made good progress in the area of autonomy, more work needs to be done as we seek to implement a 21st century governance structure that preserves the collegiate model while allowing each school to focus on improved student-athlete welfare,” it stated.

This was the Big Ten’s way of reaffirming the Golden Rule: Those with the gold make the rules.

If the actions of 65 teams that make up the powerhouse conferences  are not a call for revolution, they certainly are a strong statement that restructuring how the NCAA has conducted business for the past 50 years is about to end.

The Big Ten follows a letter circulated in late May by the Pac-12 to institutions in other major conferences. Pac-12 presidents outlined a 10-point plan that includes proposals such as paying athletes a stipend.

"We acknowledge the core objectives could prove to be expensive and controversial, but the risks of inaction or moving too slowly are far greater," the letter reads. "The time for tinkering with the rules and making small adjustments is over."

This move to give conferences more freedom in drafting rules and guidelines has been gaining momentum for years. But the actions of football players at Northwestern University to form a union seems to have escalated the topic.

Even NCAA leaders have agreed that something needs to be done. But given the size and diverse nature of the NCAA's membership, finding a model that’s acceptable to all has proven elusive, if not impossible.

This much is clear, though: The “Power Five” own the major brand names. With the help of their own TV networks, those conferences stand on solid financial footing, thanks largely to football,  which allows them to chart their own fates.

Big Ten presidents made clear they don’t want to see the traditions developed over the years by the NCAA dissolved. Instead, in conjunction with the Pac-12, they favor more flexibility in addressing those issues they and their athletes see as critical.

This leaves the future configuration the NCAA murky. The “Power Five” represent the nation’s biggest athletic departments, but how will schools from conferences like the Big East, Mountain West, Missouri Valley, Mid-American and others continue to compete as equal members?

Southeastern Conference commissioner Mike Sliver - one of the most powerful figures in college sports - was much more demanding and threatening in his assessment of what needs to be done.

He warned that the SEC would look at pulling out of the NCAA Division I and forming a new division if the “Power Five” aren’t awarded more autonomy. That sets up a showdown later this summer when the Division I board of directors vote on the matter.

“If it doesn’t pass, the next move would be to go to a ‘Division 4,’” Sliver said at the SEC’s spring meetings in Destin, Fla. “It’s not something we want to do.”

The powers of college sports have it clear. One way or another, change is on the way.

 Tom Lindley is a CNHI sports columnist. Reach him at tlindley@cnhi.com.