Power NCAA conferences assert ‘autonomy’ Saturday

College athletics’ five wealthiest conferences, having gained new and unprecedented power within the NCAA last year, will begin to use it Saturday.

Representatives of the SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 schools will meet at the NCAA’s national convention outside Washington to set their own rules on some issues over which they have newfound autonomy from the other 286 Division I institutions.

Headlining the major conferences’ agenda is a vote on increasing athletic scholarships to the full cost of attendance, which would mean a stipend of several thousand dollars per year for athletes in the five conferences.

Also on the agenda are proposals that would guarantee that scholarships can’t be reduced or canceled because of athletics performance, enable athletes to borrow money against future earnings to purchase “loss-of-value” insurance as injury protection, and strengthen concussion safety protocols.

The votes will come as current and former football and basketball players increasingly are challenging — in courtrooms, in Congress and elsewhere — a college athletics system in which TV contracts generate billions, coaches make millions and the athletes feel shortchanged.

“We don’t have the luxury of determining the pace of change around us,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said in a webcast state-of-the-NCAA address Thursday. “We can’t sit still.”

In a joint statement, the commissioners of the five power conferences called autonomy “a new chapter” that will provide athletes “an enhanced level of support.”

The push for autonomy grew out of the conferences’ difficulty in getting their proposals passed through the full Division I membership, in which institutions with rich resources are outnumbered by those with lesser means.

Last spring, SEC commissioner Mike Slive warned that his league could pull out of Division I and form a new “Division IV” if it did not gain some degree of autonomy. Two months later, the Division I board of directors approved a plan that gave the SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 the power to set their own rules in limited areas, including benefits for athletes.

On Saturday afternoon, a group of 80 voters — one official from each of the 65 schools in the five conferences, plus 15 athletes — will cast the first ballots of the autonomy era. (The athletes include three from each of the five leagues. None are from Georgia or Georgia Tech.)

For a proposal to be adopted, it must get 60 percent of the votes (48 votes) as well as simple majority support from schools in three of the five conferences, or a simple majority of the votes (41) as well as simple majority support from schools in four of the five conferences.

The vote on increasing scholarships to the full cost of attendance will garner the most attention.

The increase would “more comprehensively address the educational costs of student-athletes, while maintaining the principle of amateurism,” according to the proposed legislation.

Under current rules, athletic scholarships cover tuition and fees, room and board, and books. Expanding to full cost of attendance would add incidentals such as transportation, supplies and other personal expenses, as calculated by each institution’s financial-aid office under federal guidelines.

The amount varies from school to school, and financial-aid offices are allowed to use “professional judgment” to adjust an individual’s cost of attendance from the campus average.

Unsurprisingly, concerns have surfaced that some schools might exploit the calculations for recruiting advantage. So the SEC has offered an amendment that would require institutions to submit reports to the NCAA explaining any variances from their “standard or average” cost of attendance and demonstrating that any increase for an athlete is based on policies applicable to all students.

Autonomy for the power conferences also has raised concerns that the gap between college sports’ “haves” and “have-nots” will be exacerbated. (Other Division I conferences will have the option of adopting changes made by the Power 5, but may not be able to afford them.) And fears have been expressed that additional money for athletes might be recouped by cutting some non-revenue sports.

Emmert noted that only 3 percent of NCAA athletes play FBS football and high-profile men’s basketball, adding: “We need to make sure that the success of the 3 percent doesn’t come at the cost of the 97 percent. … We need to figure out how all 100 percent can thrive in the 21st century.”