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Emmert’s Comments Suggest Power Conferences Will Control Division I

USA Today’s Nicole Auerbach captured this quote from NCAA President Mark Emmert about the upcoming changes to the governance model:

Emmert suggested that Big 5 members would look at areas where they could improve the welfare of student-athletes, such as implementing a stipend to cover the full cost of attendance, providing more meals and addressing agent rules. Because those conferences have greater resources than smaller conferences, they can afford to pay for some of these things. Conferences outside of the Big 5 also could adopt these practices if they want; “It would be all inclusive and provide flexibility,” Emmert said. [Emphasis added.]

The beginning of the paragraph is mostly the same old story, although agent rules are a new major initiative that might be tied to the new governance model. The last sentence is the most revealing about what NCAA governance might look like this time next year.

One fear for both have-nots and the NCAA as a whole was the idea that Division I might end up with two sets of rules. The richest athletic departments would have the ability to award more financial aid, provide more benefits, and allow student-athletes greater access to professional opportunities. The smaller departments would be prevented not only by a lack of means, but also by existing NCAA rules. Even if Gonzaga or Boise State could afford a stipend, unlimited meals, or flying parents to games, they would not be able to.

Emmert’s comments suggest that will not be the case. Instead, the measures passed by the power conferences (whatever that grouping ends up being) will be available to the rest of Division I. It brings us back close to the model which was discussed when the first version of the stipend, the miscellaneous expense allowance, was proposed. Legislation would be passed by the whole of Division I, then conferences would opt-in or -out. The major difference is that legislation will need the support of only a subset of Division I to make it into the rule book.

This is a double-edged sword for the “middle class” of Division I: the “Group of Five” football conferences and the most successful basketball conferences like the Big East, A–10, Missouri Valley, and WCC. On the one hand, they will not be prevented from taking advantage of deregulation pushed by the power conferences. On the other hand, it also means no end in sight to the arms race for these institutions, who are often stretching themselves the most to keep up.

More fundamentally though, if anything resembling Emmert’s comments come to pass, then the power conferences will not establish autonomy from the rest of Division I. Instead, they will have achieved what may have been the real goal all along: authority over all of Division I. The existing voting procedures (assuming they do not radically change) give the power conferences enough weight to throw around to derail legislation they disagree with. The new governance structure will give them the ability to pass legislation over the objections of the vast majority of Division I institutions, who may then feel it necessary to adopt those rules as well.

Unless the topics upon which the power conferences can pass legislation are strictly limited, the “super division” will exist. But it will not be a separate division, subdivision, or association. Instead, the power conferences will have the ability to remake Division I in their image. How long everyone else can keep up with that vision and how long the big boys will put up with the rest would be anyone’s guess.

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