The proposal would allow the five wealthiest conferences to break off from the broader association and govern themselves without the shackles of many of the NCAA's obsolete rules. Most notably, autonomy for the "Power Five" would allow richer schools to better compensate athletes and ease restrictions on recruiting practices.
Critics of the proposal lament its inevitable effect of widening the gap between college sports' haves and have-nots, both in terms of the schools in question and the individual sports themselves. Institutions that don't belong to one of the powerhouse conferences -- the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Big 10, the Big 12, the Southeastern Conference and the Pac-12 -- and share in their billions of dollars in revenue have historically blocked NCAA legislation that would provide extra benefits to players. Power Five autonomy would allow other Division I conferences to let their members offer these benefits, but smaller schools struggling to spend that extra money would have a notable disadvantage recruiting players compared to wealthy programs that can afford it. (And while few of those schools have much hope against the big guys on the football field, they are a huge part of what makes the NCAA basketball tournament so great.)
Furthermore, those have-not schools might find themselves needing to cut smaller sports that don't generate revenue in order to compensate for the extra expense, while still abiding by Title IX requirements, which mandate equal treatment of women. If schools such as Kent State and Old Dominion would suffer, so, too would baseball and swimming programs across Division I.
Boise State president Bob Kustra has been one of the more vocal opponents of Big Five autonomy, denouncing the move as a "power grab" in a widely circulated letter. He's not wrong: The conferences like to couch their arguments in noble language of providing pocket money and health benefits to young athletes who are certainly deserving, and the proposal is a good first step toward giving exploited athletes at least a few concessions in exchange for the billions of dollars they generate. But this is as much about money and power as it is about the NCAA momentarily appeasing those of us relentlessly calling for an overhaul to a system built on the myths of amateurism and student-athletes.
So yes, all those criticisms are valid; the gulf between conflicting conferences is already vast, non-revenue sports already suffer enough, and we certainly don't need yet another excuse to "revisit" Title IX. But we're too far gone to simply say that the system is broken, so let's not break it any more. A drastic shift is needed, one that will ultimately destroy the entire system as we know it.
If autonomy is the first step in the NCAA's demise, then we should applaud it -- even if it means giving more power to conferences that don't need it. To paraphrase my former colleague Jonathan Mahler, any action against the NCAA is a good action. To be sure, there will be growing pains. USA Today's Dan Wolken notes that if the vote passes, it is just the first step in a long process that will likely be mired with the same kind of infighting and conflicting interests that routinely block progress in the NCAA. The whole thing is a mess, and the only solution is to just blow up the whole thing. Maybe then the NFL and NBA can start taking more responsibility for an organization that has served as their gratis minor-league system for all these years.
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