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As the NCAA holds its annual convention this week, its members are moving toward significant change that would give more power to the wealthiest, highest-profile schools but would keep the organization intact.
Schools in the Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and Southeastern conferences -- which financially and in tradition form the upper tier of the Football Bowl Subdivision -- are set to gain more autonomy to provide more benefits to athletes, including a stipend, and to use their resources as they see fit. The net effect would be to formalize the gap between the NCAA's haves and have-nots and to eliminate the "level playing field" as an ideal.
A 14-page proposal with a broad outline for change at the Division I level is to be debated this week. Nothing is expected to be finalized, but it's likely that by next fall the NCAA will operate with a new structure.
NCAA President Mark Emmert called the discussion "a little complicated and not very exciting" but added "it will lead to potentially a very significant change in the way Division I operates."
The proposal also attempts to streamline the organization. There has been a growing sense among NCAA members of a disconnect, especially as it pertained to policy-makers -- for the last few years, school presidents, along with the NCAA employees in Indianapolis -- vs. athletics directors working daily in college athletics.
Issues with the enforcement process, including the public airing of misconduct by NCAA staff in an investigation of Miami (Fla.), helped bring tensions to a simmer. There was also a perception that other initiatives, including attempts to deregulate recruiting, were enacted without sufficient input from athletics directors, other administrators and coaches with direct understanding of the issues.
On a separate but parallel track, schools in the power conferences chafed at constraints placed upon them by schools with fewer resources. In recent years, proposals such as stipends (or enhanced scholarships designed to cover the full cost of attendance), favored by the 65 schools in the five wealthiest conferences, were voted down by the larger Division I membership of more than 350 schools.
Last summer, commissioners of the five power conferences went public with varying degrees of dissatisfaction. The coordinated message was that change was imperative -- along with the suggestion that if they didn't get their way, a separate subdivision (known in the discussion as Division 4) or even a breakaway from the NCAA might be necessary.
If not formal, the gap between the haves and have-nots is already very real. Analysis by USA TODAY Sports, as one example, shows the average SEC public school's operational expenses in 2011-12 were $88.5 million, according to the most recently available information reported by the schools to the NCAA. The average Mountain West school spent $41.3million. The financial divide between the top five leagues in FBS and the other five leagues (Mountain West, American Athletic, Conference USA, Mid-American and Sun Belt) is expected to grow dramatically with the SEC's new TV money and the advent of the College Football Playoff, which begins after the 2014 season.
The disparity is even more pronounced when looking at schools in the Football Championship Subdivision and in non-football Division I schools (known as I-AAA).
"The reality is, some schools have distinct advantages anyway, inherently," Villanova athletics director Vince Nicastro told USA TODAY Sports. "Geographic advantage; others have tradition. There are already some inherent advantages. Money is just one of them. ... It hasn't been equal in a long time."
A separate subdivision is not in the proposal to be considered this week and appears unlikely. Although football is driving much of the change, there's no apparent desire for changes that would harm the NCAA basketball tournament.
"It's not really on the table," Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany told USA TODAY Sports, referring to a separate subdivision. "We're trying to get everybody under the tent."
But the possibility remains, if only as leverage. At the IMG Intercollegiate Athletics Forum last month, Delany said a separate subdivision "is not off the table." Members of the power conferences have stressed a desire to work within the current system. But they're pushing for a weighted voting system that will in essence provide them with a super-majority.
"I think what you'll see is more autonomy given to schools that have more resources to invest in athletics," Florida State athletics director Stan Wilcox said. "That's always been the argument: How do you create a level playing field when you have some schools that have $100 million budgets vs. those that have $30 (million)-$50 million budgets, and in the legislative process to try to level that playing field, you come out with pieces of legislation that are not always agreed upon, particularly by those schools that have more resources."
The proposal under consideration this week limits the power conferences' autonomy to specific issues, including stipends and other things labeled as "student-athlete welfare." Delany previously called them "21st-century needs," including things such as providing travel expenses for players' parents to attend games or providing funds to pay for players' "lifetime" educational opportunities -- after they've finished playing. The power conferences, which have benefited from a windfall in TV revenue in recent years, remain adamantly opposed to a pay-for-play model.
"We've got the resources," Delany said. "We want to provide more and better full experiences, whether it's lifetime educational assurance or support. We need the autonomy to do that. Right now it's probably a little bit imbalanced. There's an awful lot of voting that occurs on the basis of a level playing field, rather than what's right for the student-athlete in a high-resource environment."
Specifics remain elusive. "Division I Governance Dialogue" sessions are scheduled for Thursday and Friday to discuss the proposal. In order to implement changes by the summer, a special convention might be necessary in the spring.
"We have to be careful," Delany said. "We have to do the right thing for the college community, but we also have to do the right thing for ourselves."
Contributing: Nicole Auerbach, Brent Schrotenboer, Daniel Uthman, Dan Wolken