The Board of Directors that governs the National Collegiate Athletic Association's Division I member universities voted Thursday to restructure how the institutions govern themselves, granting a greater level of autonomy to the five wealthiest conferences.
The Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12, Pacific 12, and Southeastern Conferences can now make their own rules concerning issues such as allowing full-cost-of-attendance stipends, offering four-year scholarships, and providing better health care for athletes. Though the new structure was easily passed with a 16-2 vote, some officials from less-wealthy Division I conferences have expressed concern about the new structure, saying they are worried about the growing gap between high-resource institutions and the rest.
"The NCAA is letting those five conferences do whatever they want," one Division I president said. “The Division I colleges that are left out, they are now in a different stratum of American athletics. Do the athletes, the fans, the alumni realize that they may be pushed down to a different level of excellence?”
The two members of the board that voted against the measure were the Ivy League's Phillip Hanlon, president of Dartmouth College, and the Colonial Athletic Association's Patrick Harker, president of the University of Delaware. Institutions that oppose the governance change can still say so during a 60-day comment period. If 75 colleges request an override, the board can reconsider the change. If 125 colleges request an override during that time, the legislation will be suspended.
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The autonomy will apply only to certain areas, with specifics to be decided on by October 1. Those 11 areas concern several issues that have made headlines this year, including financial aid, health, recruiting restrictions, meals for athletes, and time demands on them. They will not have autonomy in some other key areas, including player transfer, scholarship limits for individual teams, and enforcement procedures.
Each institution in the five conferences will get one vote, with another three votes going to college athletes in each conference. For example, the Big Ten would have a total of 17 votes -- 14 institutional votes and three athlete votes.
Mark Emmert, president of the NCAA, has pushed for a restructuring for at least two years. In July, he endorsed the move in front of a Senate committee, saying the five richest conferences are the ones most likely to adopt some much-needed reforms. He praised the passing of the measure Thursday.
“I am immensely proud of the work done by the membership," Emmert said in a statement. "The new governance model represents a compromise on all sides that will better serve our members and, most importantly, our student-athletes. These changes will help all our schools better support the young people who come to college to play sports while earning a degree.”
The restructuring also increases the size of the Division I Board of Directors from its current 18 members to 24. The new board will consist of five presidents from the five so-called "power conferences," five presidents from the remaining Football Bowl Subdivision conferences, five from the Football Championship Subdivision, and five from Division I institutions that don't have football teams. A college athlete, a faculty athletics representative, a campus senior woman athletics representative, and the chair of the Council -- a new governing body in charge of the day-to-day legislative functions -- will round out the rest of the board.
The new Council replaces the current Legislative and Leadership Councils, and will include 32 conference representatives, two faculty representatives, four conference commissioners, and two athletes. It will vote on new rules that can be adopted only in April of each year. Any rules adopted by the Council may be reviewed by the Board of Directors.
The weighted voting totals of the Council gives 37.5 percent of the vote to the five major conferences, as well as a combined 37.5 percent to FCS and no-football conferences. FBS conferences would have 18.8 percent. Faculty representatives and athletes would have 3.1 percent each. There are about 350 institutions in Division I, and 65 of them belong to the five wealthiest conferences. Those high-revenue institutions make up 18 percent of the total number of Division I colleges, but nearly 40 percent of the Council's total vote.
The five conferences also have an outsize presence on the Board of Directors, making up 21 percent of the vote. When combined with the rest of the FBS conferences, those 125 colleges account for 35 percent of all Division I colleges, but 41 percent of the Board of Directors.
The five conferences fought hard for the weighted votes, receiving pushback from other conferences when an NCAA steering committee requested feedback.
"Why is it important that the schools from the five highly funded conferences not only have autonomy but also expect the authority of weighted voting?" asked Ron Prettyman, athletics director at Indiana State University, a member of the Missouri Valley Conference. "It makes no sense that the 65 schools from the five highly funded conferences control the voting processes and opportunities of the 300 or so schools that are not a part of the five highly funded conferences. I am supportive of autonomy or weighted voting, but not both."
But ultimately, the committee that recommended the governance plan and the Division I Board of Directors gave the power conferences what they wanted -- continuing a historical trend in which sports powers get their way because of a (not-so-veiled) threat that they will ultimately abandon the division, and maybe even the NCAA, if they don't.
The changes in governance come at a time when the NCAA and its five wealthiest conferences are facing public and legal pressure on many fronts. The NCAA is fighting, and settling, concussion lawsuits in several states. Football players at Northwestern University are continuing their attempt at unionization. In California, a judge is deciding whether athletes should be compensated for their likenesses being used in video games.
Ramogi Huma, the founder of the National College Players Association and a former linebacker for the University of California at Los Angeles, said if the restructuring was an attempt at pacifying disgruntled college athletes and advocates, then it is a "misstep."
"This is pretty much just window dressing," Huma said. "It's still not real representation for players. The player on the board is still completely outnumbered. If it was the other way around, and only one college president was allowed a vote, I think people would understand how unfair that is."