Biggest Threat to the Power 5 Conferences' Quest for Autonomy

Ben Kercheval@@BenKerchevalCollege Football Lead WriterMay 22, 2014

FILE - In this Nov. 1, 2012, file photo, Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott speaks during the PAC-12 college basketball media day in San Francisco. Scott says the kind of NCAA reform sought by the most powerful conferences is not an
Eric Risberg/Associated Press

For as much criticism as the NCAA receives—and it deserves much of it—it's also easily forgotten that it's an entity that serves its members' interests.

The membership is made up of the schools, which are the ones that determine if legislation passes or not. Similarly, the membership can push back if the so-called Big Five/Power Five/etc., wants voting autonomy on several hot-button issues like cost of attendance, scholarship protection, liberalizing transfer rules and better health benefits.

The NCAA board of directors is expected to vote on restructuring the governance model in early August. The board previously endorsed the new model in April. 

Earlier this week, Pac-12 presidents sent a letter, obtained by the AP, to their counterparts in the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and SEC calling for swift changes to the current governance model. In short, it was another unofficial vote of approval for autonomy among the five wealthiest conferences. 

Dave Martin/Associated Press

"We acknowledge the core objectives could prove to be expensive and controversial, but the risks of inaction or moving too slowly are far greater," the letter read. "The time for tinkering with the rules and making small adjustments is over."

Many of these points overlap with the demands made by Northwestern players, who voted last month on whether they would unionize as university employees. The results of the vote won't be known for some time. 

The inability to agree on many of the aforementioned player-related issues, which isn't surprising given the sheer size and bureaucracy of the NCAA, is a big reason why Northwestern players initially wanted collective bargaining power. 

However, there are still those opposed to the idea of autonomy within the NCAA. A day after the Pac-12 letter was obtained, Boise State president Bob Kustra penned his own letter to USA Today (via the Idaho Statesman) slamming the Power Five's attempts to split off within the NCAA:

It's time for the NCAA to take a stand for fiscal responsibility and the rightful place of intercollegiate athletics in American higher education and put a stop to the arms race by rejecting all reforms related to enhancing an already premier and first-class experience for student-athletes.

In fairness, Kustra agreed that three reforms do need to be made: improved medical monitoring related to concussions, the chance for athletes to finish their education on the university's dime at a later date and scholarship protection following a career-ending injury. 

Those are almost universally considered to be important subjects. 

Kustra's letter, which refers to autonomy as a "grab for money and power," is interesting nevertheless. Boise State was once set to join the now-defunct Big East in an attempt to be included among the power conferences. By the end of 2012, however, the Broncos officially opted to stay in the Mountain West. A report via ESPN in the following days revealed that the Mountain West's re-worked television contract played a role in Boise State's decision. 

Of course, the term "hypocrisy" should be banned from the college athletics dictionary since it's no surprise that administrators do and say what best serves their present situations. Though Boise State and Alabama vote under the same governance umbrella, they are operated differently as determined by budget. Kustra admits as much in his letter. 

(And Boise State isn't even the most extreme example with a $37 million budget, per Kustra.)

That means, beyond NCAA rules, there's little to no consistency across college athletics. Schools and conferences make decisions—from scheduling to legislation—that are, understandably, self-centered.

As Dan Wolken of USA Today points out, with so many varying opinions, it's no wonder why every proposal hangs in a constant balance. 

Ultimately, autonomy among the Power Five seems inevitable. As Kustra says, "university presidents are so quick to fall in line with powerful conference commissioners who seem to be calling the shots with these NCAA reforms." There's no doubt the SEC's Mike Slive and the Big Ten's Jim Delany have substantial power and influence. 

But folks like Kustra have their own goal: to appeal to members of the board who represent the lesser conferences and division. Folks like Kustra won't let autonomy happen without a fight. 


Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. All quotes cited unless obtained firsthand.