Autonomy set to benefit athletes

NEW YORK -- The NCAA Board of Governors' vote to grant autonomy Thursday to the five biggest revenue-producing FBS conferences and Notre Dame should be remembered as a historic day in intercollegiate athletics. On this day, the NCAA voted that the strong shall inherit the earth.

Autonomy is a deftly chosen word. It means self-rule, and if you hear it and think of the downtrodden rising to smite their oppressors, then the spin of the Mike Slives of the world has achieved its goal. In fact, this is the haves saying to the have-nots, "Enough already."

The formal approval of autonomy might have taken place Thursday, but the big schools achieved autonomy the minute they asked for it. As Slive, the Southeastern Conference commissioner, said last month, "If we do not achieve a positive outcome under the existing big tent of Division I, we will need to consider the establishment of a venue with similar conferences and institutions where we can enact the desired changes in the best interests of our student-athletes."

In other words, if you don't grant us autonomy, we will establish autonomy.

It is entirely possible that the rest of Division I could override the vote of the board, but that would be a gesture of pride, not brains.

In so many ways, the 65 newly autonomous schools have for decades done things that their thinner-walleted Division I colleagues cannot. They expanded their stadiums with luxury boxes and erected battleship-sized video screens. They built practice facilities that would put NFL teams to shame. They agreed to pay coaches salaries that should put the universities to shame. None of these expenditures came under the expansive reach of the NCAA Manual.

But benefits for the student-athletes have always been the subject of legislation. Michigan may be able to fill the Big House, but it could fill the pockets or the stomachs of its players only as much as Eastern Michigan could afford. The NCAA considered that to be competitive equity, legislating in the meeting room what could not be equalized in the world outside it.

And NCAA refers not to the hired bureaucrats but to the collective membership that passed the rules. There are more than 300 schools in Division I, and perhaps a quarter of them have the money to increase benefits. So the big schools remained constrained by the small -- a majority vote in the name of competitive equity.

"That sort of equity is largely a mirage," Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said Wednesday in New York. He spoke as a panelist in a two-hour discussion, sponsored by the conference, of the state of intercollegiate athletics. "There's always been some separation. This may contribute to some additional separation, although the rules and any changes that might be made are intended to be permissive. But they're also intended to take into account that those 65 schools are largely the face of what most people know as college athletics."

And that's how we got to this vote. As the schools brought in more and more money -- Kansas State will earn $26 million in television revenue this year -- and could not spend more on student-athletes, the schools attracted lawsuits. They also began to get hammered in the court of public opinion.

"I think we got to the place," Bowlsby said, "where we just believe there was a need for us to be perhaps a little less egalitarian, a little less magnanimous about the 350 schools and spend a little time worrying about the most severe issues that are troubling our programs among the 65."

With autonomy, the 65 schools say they intend to provide more benefits to the student-athlete: more aid per year, more years on a scholarship and health insurance that will extend beyond an athlete's time on campus. Fifteen student-athletes -- three from each of the five conferences -- will be voting members of the new board.

"I am cautiously optimistic," Baylor University president and chancellor Ken Starr said Wednesday. "There are so many ramifications, and there is also this abiding concern of unintended consequences."

Administrators are trying to figure out how to implement the changes. Should the athletic departments use the "full cost of attendance" figure determined by a federal formula? That amount is different at every school. Should they put a cap on the amount so that the student-athlete living at Washington State in little Pullman gets the same amount as the Washington Husky living in metropolitan Seattle?

"I believe, as does Bob [Bowlsby], that competitive equity is really hard to legislate, not just in athletics but in life in general," West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck said. "We can all be created equal, but the moment we come out of the womb, you have a different set of opportunities than I may have. Even with autonomy, there will be programs at the top of the heap."

Autonomy will come with its own set of issues. Because the wealthiest schools are free to act upon their own interests, the rich will likely get richer. But it's also a good bet that student-athletes will receive more benefits. That, at the end of the day, is the point.