Power conferences in autonomy talks

SAN DIEGO -- Hundreds of athletic administrators and delegates gathered at the San Diego Convention Center Thursday to begin dialogue that is expected to alter the landscape of Division I athletics.

At the annual NCAA convention, a sub-committee of the Division I board of directors proposed a rough governance model that would give more autonomy to the five power conferences -- the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, ACC -- and give a stronger voice to athletic directors with respect to how student-athletes are supported.

The three-hour dialogue served strictly as a give-and-take session. The objective is that the new model can be firmed up as soon as this spring.

"To move all of the legislative activity into the hands of athletic directors and other practitioners would be an enormous shift from where the process is right now," said NCAA president Mark Emmert, who sits on the seven-member steering committee, following the dialogue. "To move toward an area that identifies sections of the rules and bylaws, that would be overseen autonomously by five conferences would be a sea-change shift. There has never been anything like that that goes on. Those two things alone would be a very large shift and change in the way the governance model works."

The new model would allow the five conferences, referred to as the "well-resourced conferences," to make certain legislative decisions on their own, the two major issues being the full cost of attendance and ongoing education scholarships.

The cost of attendance -- unofficially referred to as a stipend -- would account for miscellaneous costs that full academic scholarships cover but athletic scholarships do not. No actual dollar amount has been proposed, but the cap would be set as the full cost of attendance as designated by the university.

The ongoing education element would allow student-athletes to leave school for an extended time, but retain their scholarship so they could graduate. For example, a player drafted could go on to have a career, but not give up the academic portion of their scholarship and they could return to finish their education at a later date. A player leaving early would still give up their athletic eligibility, but not their academic eligibility.

"We're trying to balance the highly resourced and the less resourced," UCLA chancellor and steering committee member, Dr. Gene Block, told ESPN.com. "We want to find a way to keep some sort of competitive equity, but it's difficult. We have to try to find the right balance to give the conferences that are highly resourced, but maintain this tent where everyone has a chance."

Under the new model, the board of directors would still consist of school presidents, but sub-committees and an advisory council made up of athletic directors and possibly student-athletes would have a greater voice in the decision-making process.

"We need their voice in the room," Block said. "The board itself should be presidentially run. But under the new structure below the board is the council. And athletic directors could serve there or on board sub-committees."

Dr. Nathan Hatch, the Division I president and president of Wake Forest, said one of his main focuses was "renewed engagement" of athletic directors.

"I think that will take a number of forms," Hatch said. "They are the people who do this 365 days a year. ... It's important that they be deeply involved. This was once their organization. Appropriately, it's been governed by presidents. I think presidential control is right. But by the same token I think there has been a tendency for athletic directors to be less involved, and we'd like to re-engage them. Exactly what rolls they'll play is still being discussed."

Spearheading the change is a growing belief that the "level playing field" model no longer applies and the divide between the five power conferences has grown to the point where a different standard of governance is needed.

"I think our biggest potential concern is if the scholarship limits would ever change one day, say going from 85 in football to something other than that," Mountain West Conference commissioner Craig Thompson told ESPN.com. "For the most part, a lot of this is business as usual. There don't seem to be any red flags. ... There hasn't been a level playing field for decades. People like to say that and there's a perception. But there are different budgets, etcetera. We felt like we have performed nationally and competitively at a pretty good pace and I don't see this changing our world too dramatically."

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