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Since the commissioners of the Big Five conferences went public last summer with a push for significant changes in the NCAA -- meaning, mostly, more power for its most prominent schools -- Mike Slive has likened the process to turning around an aircraft carrier.
"We've spent a year," said Slive, the Southeastern Conference's commissioner. "It's not easy to do."
That the radical change of course is nearing completion is in itself an amazing occurrence. By August, the NCAA's Division I board of directors is expected to approve a revamped governance structure, with the goal of vastly increased autonomy for the SEC, Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 conferences, allowing them to provide athletes with unprecedented benefits and resources. But it's still uncertain whether they'll get the ship completely turned around -- or what would happen if they don't.
The most prominent obstacle -- Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott called it a "red-flag concern" -- is a proposed requirement for a two-tiered supermajority to be reached in order for the Big Five conferences to enact legislation. Under a proposal currently under consideration, two-thirds of 65schools and four of five conferences would be required. Several powerbrokers told USA TODAY Sports the bar is too high and might cripple the entire concept.
Slive said it is critical "to make sure that autonomy means autonomy." And, Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby noted, "Most of those rules were put in place with simple majorities. ... There isn't any other place in NCAA legislative history where the standards have been that high."
Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany, in two recent conversations with USA TODAY Sports, had similar concerns. ACC Commissioner John Swofford declined to comment Monday, saying he wanted to wait until today, after he had the chance to discuss the issue with presidents and athletics directors at his conference's annual meetings. But several athletics directors and other powerbrokers have expressed similar concern. And the collective consternation carries weight.
The Big Five conferences and their 65 schools account for fewer than 20% of the NCAA's 351 Division I schools (and nearly 1,300 schools in all divisions) but produce the vast majority of the revenue and get the bulk of the attention. They've argued that it's long past time to end the NCAA's long-held ideal of trying to create an artificially level playing field, and that they need the ability to provide athletes with more benefits and resources in areas that include full-cost-of-attendance scholarships, continuing education and medical care.
"We've been frustrated because we bring an awful lot of cachet to college athletics, and we don't control our own destiny," Bowlsby said.
'Find the sweet spot'
There has been general acceptance of the idea of giving the Big Five more power, but exactly what that means hasn't been defined.
Rather than a supermajority, the Big Five countered with another proposal: a simple majority of the 65 schools if at least four of the five conferences were in favor of a rule, or 60% of the 65 schools if three of the five conferences approved.
For red flags, there's always the threat of a breakaway from the NCAA, or at least the formation of a separate subdivision. Although most involved have expressed the desire to remain within the NCAA -- and largely because of the NCAA basketball tournament, to remain within the structure of Division I -- commissioners and other powerbrokers in the past year periodically raised the threat of leaving if they don't get what they want.
Last week, Delany told USA TODAY Sports he wasn't sure what would happen if the Big Five gets an "incomplete package" of autonomy.
"What we've tried to do from the beginning was to find the sweet spot," he said, that would keep the Big Five in the fold.
"We're not wanting to break off," Delany said. "We want to have one (basketball) tournament. We want one revenue share. One Division I identity. But we've got to have the autonomy to make the rules for the 21st-century Division I athlete. We've got to have the autonomy to interpret them. And we've got to have a majoritarian bar that's high enough to ensure majority consensus for a change but not so high that you can't get something through."
Wake Forest President Nathan Hatch, chairman of the Division I board of directors and the steering committee on governance, told USA TODAY Sports last month that the supermajority concept was under "active discussion" and said he expected to get feedback during the comment period, which runs through late June.
Though most associated with Big Five schools said they were opposed to the supermajority threshold, Notre Dame athletics director Jack Swarbrick told USA TODAY Sports he is "very much in favor." Notre Dame, which is joining the ACC in all sports except football (and also has a football scheduling arrangement with ACC members), would vote as part of that conference under the new structure.
"If we've said these are the really important things and carved out these autonomous issues to say how important they were, well, you ought to have a threshold for adopting them," Swarbrick said. "It shouldn't be everyday legislation because we said these are the core, really important things."
Swarbrick added that a supermajority would increase the clout of athletes, who as a part of the revamped structure would be provided with some voting authority. He said given the external pressures facing the NCAA -- lawsuits, unionization and increasing public sentiment that athletes are being left out while schools (and coaches and administrators) reap a financial windfall -- it is important to be able to point not only to a louder voice from athletes but also that "they have a real impact."
"If you can only have 15 (athletes) in the room, make sure the threshold is high so they have the influence they need," Swarbrick said.
But Auburn athletics director Jay Jacobs said the supermajority would deter the goal of making the NCAA "more agile."
"We're going to have to come up with a structure that we can get things done," Jacobs said.
The steering committee will consider the feedback in July and produce a final proposal that will be put to a vote of the board of directors in August. If approved, the changes could begin to take place by the NCAA's annual convention next January.
Unofficially, the feedback, at least on the supermajority, has been mostly emphatic pushback.
"It's the strong belief of the Big Ten, the SEC and others that the bar should be more reasonable," Delany told USA TODAY Sports last week. "We don't want to create the bar so high that (there's) quasi-, phantom reform. We want real reform."
Scott added, "It would be antithetical to the idea of advancing the needs of student-athletes."
What about enforcement?
There are other issues, including the area of rules interpretation. Delany and Bowlsby told USA TODAY Sports that interpretations and waivers of rules enacted by the Big Five should not be left to the purview of NCAA staff, as they are currently. Delany suggested a working group from Big Five conferences could be employed to perform those tasks.
"We all have professional people in our offices who are more than prepared, more sufficiently experienced to interpret these rules, and to waive them if necessary," Delany said. "We don't want to turn that over to someone else."
The Big Five also might want to take over another process that traditionally has been centrally controlled by the NCAA. Left largely unaddressed in the draft proposal were any changes to the NCAA's enforcement processes, which have been under fire for a couple of years in the wake of very public mistakes and mass exits of staff.
"There was a reference (in the draft proposal) that we needed to put some things in place, but they never identified what those things were, and the enforcement environment is not what it needs to be right now," Bowlsby said.
In addition, the Big Five seek the flexibility to expand their autonomy to cover additional areas if necessary in the future.
"We want to be in the position where we can do what we set out to do," Slive said. "That's all it amounts to. It's very simple."
But turning the NCAA's aircraft carrier obviously isn't simple. Or easy.
Contributing: Dan Wolken, Nicole Auerbach