The buzzword has become “autonomy.”
“ ‘Restructuring’ makes more sense to me,” South Carolina football coach Steve Spurrier said.
Whatever it’s called, change is coming to college athletics, and the members of the Southeastern Conference believe that change should be autonomy for the Big Five conferences – themselves, the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12. The 65 schools that make up those conferences are the “haves” of college athletics and now want to share some of that wealth with their athletes.
“We don’t want them to retire, just live a little bit better,” Spurrier said. “All of us SEC football coaches have been trying to create a little bit better lifestyle for our football players, and we are hopeful that is going to happen in the near future.”
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If they get their way, the Big Five will remain part of the NCAA but will make their own rules in several areas that deal with athlete welfare, including increasing the value of scholarships to the full cost of attendance at each school.
“As someone who started his career at a school that would not be part of those 65, it’s sad,” Gamecocks basketball coach Frank Martin said. “But I also understand the side I am on now, and that’s that we need to do more for student-athletes. We are all benefiting as universities and coaches, and we have to find a way to do more for student-athletes.”
What is the plan?
The NCAA Division I board of directors will vote in August on whether to approve the proposal, which it endorsed in April. As a member of the board and the NCAA’s steering committee on governance, South Carolina president Harris Pastides will play a large role in shepherding the proposal through its final stages.
“The 65 member institutions are committed to meeting the needs of student-athletes based on increased resources, and they desire to provide student-athletes with enhanced benefits such as full cost of attendance, lifelong learning and additional health and nutritional benefit,” read a copy of the proposal obtained by CBSSports.com. “In addition, they desire to support student-athletes who are considering careers as professional athletes by providing more opportunities for that decision-making process to occur in a fair and fully informed manner.”
Among the specifics mentioned by SEC officials are more access to training table meals, more comprehensive and lasting medical coverage, travel money for players and their families, an evaluation of the yearlong time requirements of athletes, lifelong access to degree completion, a better process for determining the potential professional status of underclassmen who are thinking of declaring for the draft in their sport and possibly adding a 10th on-field football coach while limiting off-field staff.
“We take care of (players) in a first-class manner, in any way we can within the rules,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “So the frustration comes when the rules don’t allow a little bit more for them. I think everybody is really optimistic that this five gets together and gets autonomy that things will change for the better. And I think pretty rapidly.”
The NCAA, and specifically the schools of the Big Five and their bulging budgets, has become the target of everything from litigation involving the health of athletes to a recent NLRB ruling that categorizes players at private schools as employees and gives them the right form unions.
“The whole intercollegiate model is at risk if we don’t do something,” Florida president Bernie Machen said. “If (smaller schools) don’t want to do this, it’s incumbent on them to come up with something else that will get us out of this box.”
That’s not to mention the public pressure thanks to the skyrocketing prices schools are paying for coaches and facilities.
“We have done nothing for the athletes essentially in the last 20 years,” Machen said.
Will it pass?
Probably. Pastides and Slive both are optimistic. In fact, Machen is the only person in the SEC who has publicly expressed concern the vote could go the other way.
“I’m just nervous that this proposal has got so many different sides to it and such a long way to go that I am pessimistic about it.” Machen said.
There still is one sticking point left to iron out before the matter goes to a vote. The current proposal calls for a super-majority vote to pass legislation within the Big Five. The SEC voted last week to recommend that threshold be lowered from a two-thirds majority and a 50 percent majority within four of the five conferences to a 60 percent majority within the 65 schools and at least three of five conferences with a 50 percent majority. It seems to be a minor speed bump.
A lot of work for the Big Five, which will address the total cost of attendance first and then move on from there.
“We will work from August until January in each area,” Slive said. “We will worry about the details then.”
How much will it cost?
“Those discussions are happening at every institution at the five conferences,” Tennessee athletics director Dave Hart said. “We don’t have those numbers yet. All you can do is estimate what you think those numbers will be and get a range that seems reasonable. I wouldn’t take a stab at it right now.”
The increased meals cost alone will be significant, Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said. Even among the 65 schools who are breaking away, resources vary. South Carolina’s annual revenues are approximately $83.8 million, while Alabama’s are $125.5 million
“There’s going to be some financial pressure,” USC athletics director Ray Tanner said. “There is no question about it.”
Those pressures will be alleviated in the short term by the SEC Network, which will go on air in August and begin producing revenues soon after that. Eventually, though, the price tag might force cuts in other areas, Pastides said.
“Down the road, when the income is basically flat, the students are going to come first,” he said. “Maybe you don’t invest in facilities or increases in coaches’ salaries.”
Are the 'left-behind' in Division I happy about it?
“There are a lot of people on the other side who don’t want us to do it,” Machen said, meaning the Division I schools outside the Big Five.
Texas A&M athletics director Eric Hyman can understand that.
“I am a product of the VMIs, the Miami of Ohios,” he said. “I have the utmost respect for those institutions, but as time goes on, there are not a lot of similarities. The gap has gotten larger. There are things we would like to be able to do. Now we are going to be able to do them a lot faster.”
Schools outside the Big Five will be able to adopt the new rules if they choose, but it’s extremely doubtful any will have the financial resources to do it.
Is this the beginning of a semi-professional sports?
“No, if it was semi-pro football, we would have to give some of these guys about $250,000 a year,” Spurrier said. “Us coaches are in favor of them having a better quality of life to live a little bit better, just a little bit of money in their pocket.”
The proposal states the changes will happen “in a manner consistent with the basic principles of amateurism and the collegiate model.” The end result is not the concern right now, Martin said.
“I don’t think that is a concern that we need to sit there and be worried about,” he said. “I think we need to be worried about doing what’s right for the landscape of our universities and sports so we can keep the model we have now as amateur athletics.”
Is this the first step toward the big schools breaking away completely?
“Not at all,” Pastides said. “Not one president in that room is anticipating that would happen or is wanting that to happen.”
The sentiment was echoed by everyone in the SEC.
“We are still very much under the NCAA. That’s not going to change,” Miles said. “We are very much a member institution but these five conferences will hopefully be able to support their athletes at a different level.”
That’s if they get what they want. If restructuring is not approved, the SEC will encourage the other four major conferences to join it in creating an entirely new division within the NCAA, Slive said.
“From Day 1, we have said that we believe the NCAA is the appropriate umbrella organization,” he said. “Change is hard but we have to face up to change. It’s going to create a lot of different issue for us, but it is time.”