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USA TODAY
Dan Wolken, USA TODAY Sports

Kevin White is a college athletics lifer, a man who proudly calls himself a traditionalist and conservative player in his desire for the future. He also represents, as Duke's athletics director, one of the most pristine brands in college sports and an institution that takes the so-called student-athlete model more seriously than most.

But at 63, White is no different than most of his counterparts across big-time college sports in conceding that some of the most fundamental things -- all the way down to the definition of "amateurism" -- are on the precipice of being recalibrated in significant ways.

Even if the consequences of doing so still aren't fully understood.

"I'm not unlike everybody else. I have concerns about where we're heading," White told USA TODAY Sports at last week's Atlantic Coast Conference spring meetings in Amelia Island, Fla. "But one of the things that I find myself at this age thinking is that everything changes and everything shakes and bakes a smidgen here and there and before you know it the '70s weren't like the '60s and the '80s weren't like the '70s.

"Everything is subject to some kind of retooling, so why wouldn't we think the whole definition of amateurism as we know it in its most traditional context wouldn't take on a little bit of a 2014 demeanor or personality? Why wouldn't we think that?"

As the 10 Football Bowl Subdivision conferences complete their spring meetings this month, there is big-picture consensus that college athletics is about to change forever.

Scholarships that cover "the full cost of attendance" are coming in some form to NCAA Division I member schools. So are more perks and benefits, "unlimited" food for athletes and even perhaps the ability for schools to provide things such as a travel allowance for out-of-town family members to watch games. Major changes to transfer rules might be on the table. Agent rules are going to be revamped. Some athletics directors privately concede that giving profits from jersey sales to athletes after they graduate is something they might have to consider.

With the five wealthiest conferences within the NCAA soon having an opportunity to make their own rules, who knows what direction any of this will take.

Which, for an organization that has historically been slow and difficult to reform, brings both possibility and trepidation. In college athletics' rush to make major changes and beat the lawyers and union organizers to the courts, do they fully understand what they're about to do?

"It's uncharted waters, and that's always a little disconcerting. But it's also a very exciting time. I think we're going to have the opportunity to do some things for our student-athletes that we've wanted to do for years," North Carolina State athletics director Debbie Yow said. "It's like trying a new offense as a basketball coach. I never thought it was going to work 100%. Some of it is always going to be trial-and-error, and then you figure it out as you go along.

"That's what I feel like is happening right now."

Others, however, are concerned about the speed at which college athletics leaders are determined to change the enterprise in an environment fueled by intense media and legal pressure.

For instance, it's not just as simple as snapping their fingers and giving athletes the full cost of attendance.

There are potential tax issues. Gender equity issues. Questions about how to deal with partial scholarships.

Would an enhanced scholarship disqualify an athlete from a poorer background from getting a Federal Pell Grant?

Acting without understanding the details undoubtedly will create problems -- a conundrum for athletics directors who sense how much public opinion has turned against the NCAA.

"In today's world people don't want to hear how tough it is or how complicated it is or what the unintended consequences are," Oklahoma athletics director Joe Castiglione said.

Maybe that's fair. Even as the money in college sports exploded, the value of the scholarship stayed stagnant. Rules upon rules limited what schools could provide in the name of competitive equity. Then suddenly everyone woke up and realized the status quo was a road to ruin.

So the process is compacted and messy.

For instance, when the NCAA last month passed legislation that removed restrictions on providing meals and snacks around team-related activities, it was viewed as a necessary and long-overdue measure.

But college administrators have almost developed Stockholm syndrome over the NCAA rulebook. As much as they fret over its tediousness -- hello, cream cheese rules -- they almost don't know how to operate without its boundaries.

Some conferences spent hours at their meetings discussing what an unlimited meal plan really means because -- surprise! -- what they fear is one school or league using it to gain a recruiting advantage over another.

In other words, while administrators often say they want rules that allow them to do what's best for their institution, the moment the NCAA passes one their concern turns to whether the competition is going to open up a round-the-clock lobster-and-filet buffet in the athletic dining hall.

In the end, though, the crisis facing college athletics isn't about meals. Athletics directors have conceded that multimillion-dollar obligations in athlete benefits are about to be added to their budgets.

It's about whether they can change the model enough to preserve it. It's about whether they can accept that amateurism as a concept is whatever they want it to be, not what it has been, while still stopping short of becoming professional sports.

"We can address the substantive concerns, but let's do it in a way that doesn't create a separate class of students," Notre Dame athletics director Jack Swarbrick said. "How do you keep it core to the university? Too often people think this divides along economic fault lines, but there are a lot of other fault lines, too.

"The challenge here is the world sees it as a single model -- it's football, it's basketball -- but the universities and models within them are so different."

May 20, 2014

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