'Autonomy' Arrives at the NCAA

In a debate-filled session involving athletes for the first time, the 'Power Five' conferences vote to increase financial aid, adopt a new concussion policy, and bar colleges from reducing aid for athletic reasons.

January 19, 2015
Jake New
During the first autonomy vote of the "Power Five," Ty Darlington, a football player at the University of Oklahoma, motioned to table legislation requiring colleges to adopt a new concussion policy.

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – In a historic vote here Saturday, the five wealthiest conferences in the National Collegiate Athletic Association agreed to expand their athletic scholarships to cover the full cost of attendance at an athlete's college or university.

The decision came during the NCAA’s annual convention, where the 65 institutions in the “Power Five” leagues – the Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12, Pacific 12, and Southeastern Conferences – voted for the first time under a new governance structure. The new structure grants the leagues a greater level of autonomy to adopt a range of new rules pertaining to athletes' rights and benefits and, for the first time, allows athletes to vote on legislation.

The institutions also passed legislation that requires colleges to adopt a new concussion and safety policy, allows college athletes to buy insurance protecting the value of their future earnings against injury, and bars institutions from reducing scholarships for athletic reasons. The new rules only apply to the Power Five programs, but other Division I colleges may adopt them if they choose.

“We got what we wanted,” Jim Delany, commissioner of the Big Ten Conference, said. “It was great to have five conferences singing off the same sheet of music.”

The full-cost-of-attendance measure passed with just one opposing vote, though questions remain about how the change will be paid for and whether it will force colleges to reduce the number of sports they offer. Those concerns were expressed throughout several sessions during the convention last week.

“Our own version of the Division I ‘Hunger Games’ has already started,” Kathy DeBoer, executive director of the American Volleyball Coaches Association, said on Thursday -- comparing the climate of college sports to a series of books about a sadistic competition in which teenagers must kill one another to survive.

With the NCAA estimating that providing full-cost-of-attendance scholarships would cost at least $2,500 more in aid per athlete, the aid expansion amounts to at least $30 million a year across all programs. A proposal to create an amendment to the measure, which would have required institutions to report when athletes' cost of attendance increases during a year, did not pass.

“The consequence of such legislation could ultimately hurt student-athletes if/when programs are cut,” Boston College, the one opposing vote, said in a statement. “This legislation further segregates student-athletes from the general student population by increasing aid without need-based consideration.”

Other proposals on Saturday included much more debate, with much of it coming from the athletes. This year's convention was the first time in modern college sports history that the NCAA allowed Division I athletes to vote on legislation. Three athletes from each of the Power Five conferences voted on the autonomy proposals, and they dominated a discussion leading up to the voting session.

The athletes were split on legislation that would prohibit a player’s scholarship from being reduced in value or eliminated for reasons based on his or her athletic performance. Some students argued that such a rule would restrict coaches from cutting players who were, as several athletes phrased it, a “cancer to the team.” Others said, however, that continuing to allow scholarships to be reduced or cut for athletic reasons undermines the NCAA’s claim that athletes are meant to be treated as students first.

“People forget that our job is to perform,” Josh Tobias, a baseball player at the University of Florida, said while arguing against the measure. Kene Orijoke, a football player at the University of California at Los Angeles who supported the change, shot back: “This isn’t supposed to be our job.”

The legislation passed – but barely, with the measure receiving 50 yes votes. It needed 48.

The students, joined by most officials in the Big 12 Conference, were largely against legislation that required colleges to adopt a new concussion policy, saying the legislation did not go far enough to protect the health and safety of athletes. The main argument against the legislation was that it did not grant medical personnel “unchallengeable authority” in deciding if an athlete should be allowed to return to the field after sustaining a possible injury.

Brian Hainline, the NCAA’s chief medical officer, acknowledged that the proposal wasn’t as strong as he would like, but urged the membership to vote for it, anyway. “I would much rather have an imperfect start than an imperfect pause,” Hainline said.

In a display of just how much power athletes have within the new governance structure, Ty Darlington, a football player at the University of Oklahoma, motioned to refer the proposal to a committee, which would have tabled the legislation for at least another year. The motion failed, though 32 of the 80 voting members voted in its favor.

In the end, the legislation passed by a vote of 64 to 16, to scattered applause.

In an interview, Darlington said he was disappointed that the legislation had passed, but that he felt confident the policy could more easily be improved upon now that the membership had heard so many students speak out against it. Hainline even sought Darlington out after the vote to assure him that the policy would get better, he said.

“It was important that my motion came from an athlete,” Darlington said. “I was worried that some of the members might vote for the legislation because they were worried about public perception. Nobody wants to look like they’re against protecting the safety of student-athletes. It’s hard to stand up and make that motion. But as a student, I could do that.”


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