AMHERST, Mass. -- Patience, like big, quick defensive linemen, is in short supply in intercollegiate athletics these days.
The public sees billions flowing into the five major conferences and has decided that the faucet isn't working so well for the student-athletes. That makes for a compelling, quintessentially American fat-cat/little-guy narrative. Political careers have been built on flimsier foundations.
But in this case, the fat cats, the five conferences with bulging wallets, are on the same side as the little guys. You can argue that they came late to the party, or that they converted at the point of a legislative gun. At this point, that's a waste of time. They have gotten religion.
Southeastern Conference commissioner Mike Slive spoke for the big schools when he said, "What we're trying to give them is what [student-athletes] are asking for."
Slive visited the University of Massachusetts last week as the executive-in-residence for the Mark H. McCormack Department of Sport Management. In a keynote address, Slive laid out seven goals for the new subdivision of Division I that will house the following conferences: SEC, Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12.
• providing the full cost of attendance to grant-in-aid recipients
• fulfilling the health, safety and nutrition needs of student-athletes
• allowing student-athletes who have exhausted their eligibility to complete their undergraduate degree without cost
• ending the cold war against agents and advisers so that players testing the professional waters can receive better information
• harnessing the demands of sports so that student-athletes get more balance in their lives -- i.e., another crack at the "20-hour rule"
• more and better assistance for academically at-risk student-athletes
• giving student-athletes a role and a vote in NCAA governance that affects them
That list could come just as easily from a union guy as from the commissioner of one of the most powerful leagues in intercollegiate athletics.
After the speech, Slive said, "I was careful to say that what I was interested in is what the student-athletes were interested in getting, not how they got it."
Slive, as do his colleagues, want to modify the collegiate model, not do away with it.
"I'm not in favor of them being employees," Slive said. "What does 'payment' mean? If payment means they are going to be employees, then I am not in favor of it. ... Whatever we do, at least from my perspective and the perspective of my colleagues, is to be done within the collegiate model. ... This is about higher education, so we need to do more within the context of higher education, not in the context of employment."
If student-athlete and employee become synonyms, universities and their labor lawyers will be working nights for months to come, no matter how the Northwestern football players vote this week.
Support for increasing student-athlete benefits goes back at least three years, when NCAA president Mark Emmert first supported a $2,000 stipend toward the full cost of attendance. That proposal slogged to a halt, thanks to the Division I schools that don't want to pay it. With outside pressures coming to bear, the five equity conferences, as they prefer to be known, are about to form their own subdivision with their own rules.
A new subdivision will be a square peg to the round hole of the way that the NCAA currently operates. These changes, Slive said, "require a 21st century governance model within the NCAA and its structure that will preserve the collegiate model and allows our schools to make decisions that put student-athletes first. This is the No. 1 priority of the five conferences and we are committed to seeing it through."
The NCAA expects to create the five-conference subdivision in August. Slive estimated that it will take until at least the first of the year to draw up the rules by which the schools will govern themselves. In the current model, presidents make decisions as members of the NCAA Board of Directors. The five conferences want more responsibility in the hands of their athletic administrators.
Between the Northwestern case, and other pending litigation against the NCAA, the permutations of a new collegiate model could be endless. Slive would rather remodel than tear down and start over.
"You try to deal with things you can control," he said, "and some things you can't."
Slive and the other commissioners hope delivering more benefits to student-athletes will forestall the judicial and executive branches of the federal government from doing the same. The future of intercollegiate athletics will hinge on whether they are right.