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Little To Fear From Big Five Autonomy

It’s been a busy few weeks for the NCAA.

Days after announcing a change in its food policy, which went so far as to quantify the acceptable differences between a plain bagel and one with cream cheese, the association charged with maintaining even playing fields will soon offer greater autonomy to its most wealthy members.

Last week the NCAA board of directors announced a plan that would allow its five biggest conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC) to determine their own rules. Or, at least, some of their own rules. A vote by the full board is scheduled for August.

The NCAA’s new plan would allow the five conferences to determine their own policies on issues such as medical care, insurance, scholarship funding and academic support.

It may even approve travel funds for family members to games.

Any changes enacted by the “Big Five” conferences could be adopted by the 27 other conferences that make up the Division 1 section of the NCAA. It’s likely a few will adopt less costly measures, including the full costs of scholarships.

In addition to greater autonomy, the proposal calls for a new 38-member governing council made up of athletic directors (at least 60 percent), four conference commissioners and two student-athletes. The council would begin operating in 2015.

Finally, the late Darrell Royal will have his wish, and Hofstra won’t be telling Texas how to play football.

No sooner had universities witnessed the explosive growth of television revenue than they began their quest to exploit and maintain financial advantage. Who wouldn’t? It was also around this time that the NCAA realized its hold on football’s biggest money earners was perilous.

In 1981, 61 major football-playing universities threatened to sign a television contract separate from the one controlled by the NCAA. The association, feeling its oats at the time, threatened sanctions against the schools, should they make good on their threat. Georgia and Oklahoma responded with an antitrust suit against the NCAA. Three years later the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the schools, opening the door for the billion-dollar television contracts each major conference currently enjoys.

The NCAA had no choice but to acquiesce to the demands, and its lesser members have no other option than to vote in favor of the proposal.

Neither group can survive without the money the “Big Five” generate, and if the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC form their own organization, they will take basketball with them. Television revenue from its men’s basketball championship tournament is the only major source of income for the NCAA. Without its licensing agreements and tournament payouts, there would be no money filtering down to the lower classes.

As drastic as the new rule seems, its impact on college football is likely to be nil. The proposal does nothing to impact the distribution of funds that get sent from the big schools to the small. True, SEC members will be able to fund the full cost of attendance (estimated at an extra $3,000 per year) while the Mountain West may not. But Alabama already owns a huge financial and competitive advantage over Colorado State. Of the players listed in the 2014 Rivals250 ranking, only five went to non-FBS schools. Autonomy for the “Big Five” won’t change that.

Evolution, while at times painful, is almost always necessary.

For the first 90 years of college football, there was no separation of powers. Whether you were Ohio State or Ohio, you played college football. In 1973 the NCAA divided schools into three tiers, each with its own national champion. (FBS championships are awarded by agencies outside the NCAA). Things got further segregated in 1978 when Division I was further split into I-A and I-AA.

The autonomy proposal simply protects against a third fracturing of D-I, or worse yet, the much-feared super conference that would cut off all funds to those not invited to the party.

Twitter: @SteveMurray84