Saying that major college athletics is about to change forever is no longer a hyperbolic statement. Rather, such change is far closer to reality than it's ever been.
On Thursday, the NCAA Division I Board of Directors voted 16-2 in favor of a new governance model that would give the so-called power-five conferences—the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC—an unprecedented level of legislative autonomy.
NCAA President Mark Emmert expressed his satisfaction with the vote in a statement:
I am immensely proud of the work done by the membership. The new governance model represents a compromise on all sides that will better serve our members and, most importantly, our student-athletes. These changes will help all our schools better support the young people who come to college to play sports while earning a degree.
Should it pass a veto period, new legislation could be put into place in time for the 2015-16 academic year.
What does it all mean? Here are some initial takeaways from Thursday's monumental news.
1. This Is Only the First Step
As mentioned above, the vote is subject to a 60-day veto period before the new governance model can become official. Per John Infante of AthleticScholarships.net, "75 override requests would trigger the override process while 125 would table the proposal and keep it from becoming effective while that process goes on."
According to Dan Wolken of USA Today, "It is not expected enough schools will submit an override to put the legislation in jeopardy."
Still, the road to autonomy is not completely paved. Among the items on the agenda (via Dennis Dodd of CBSSports.com) are full cost of attendance, expenses and benefits, insurance and eligibility.
Figuring out cost of attendance, widely considered to be the front-burner issue of autonomy, is still in its early stages, according to Wolken. Furthermore, it's guaranteed that there will be disagreement among power-five members about how to calculate it.
A key addition—"Any amendment is subject to approval by a five-conference presidential group before consideration by the full voting group"—could make passing legislation complicated.
In an interview with Jon Solomon of CBSSports.com, Nathan Hatch, Division I board chairman and president at Wake Forest, said the process for introducing legislation could take months:
Now comes the heavy lifting. The next step is the five major conferences creating a process for them to introduce and vet their own legislation. The Power 5 will submit their own legislation for consideration by Oct. 1 that could be adopted at the January NCAA convention for 2015-16.
There will be two ways to pass new rules: Get 60 percent of all the votes from 65 school representatives and 15 athletes plus a simple majority from three of the Power 5 conferences; or get 51 percent of the votes and a simple majority from four of the five Power 5 conferences.
So while autonomy essentially splits Division I in half, the steps that tend to slow the NCAA legislation process are still very much at play. That could lead to apprehension even within power-five conferences to go forward with it.
I would not be surprised if some big schools participated too. RT @BryanDFischer: I smell at least an override…— John Infante (@John_Infante) August 7, 2014
2. Yes, There's a Recruiting Benefit; Yes, That Already Existed
A common point about autonomy is that it will widen the gap between the so-called "haves" and "have-nots" of college athletics. If power-five schools can provide their players with additional money every month, you can bet that's going to be a recruiting boost.
This is all true, but that gap already existed.
According to the 247Sports.com composite rankings, only three teams not currently in a power-five conference finished with a top-50 recruiting class over the past five years: BYU (2010), Cincinnati (2011) and South Florida (2014).
A glance through USA Today's annual list of college athletic finances show plenty of familiar, blue-blood names at the top: Texas, Alabama, Michigan, Oregon and so on. With roughly $64.5 million in revenue in 2013, UNLV is the highest rated "Group of Five" program at No. 46.
Many power programs have resources other programs don't. It's just the way the setup is. If autonomy passes, power-five programs will vote on legislation that they feel more directly applies to them. The recruits who go there will benefit.
I asked Bronco about news today of P5 autonomy. He said BYU will try to match stipends, etc., if they really benefit student-athletes.— Jay Drew (@drewjay) August 7, 2014
3. Athletes Will Have a Slightly Bigger Voice
A driving factor behind Northwestern players pushing for unionization this spring was that they didn't feel their voices were being heard. A union would be compartmentalized—Northwestern's union applied to scholarship players at a private university—and tough to get trending nationally because of right-to-work states, but it also pushed the conversation of player rights forward.
Before that, players didn't have much of a voice.
That will change under the new NCAA governance structure, albeit ever so slightly. The new board will include the chair of the Division I Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. That at least means student-athletes will have a voice at the table.
Congrats student-athletes, you go from zero percent to 3.1 percent in the new leadership structure. Hold off on those lawsuits now please.— Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer) August 7, 2014
How influential that voice is remains to be seen. In the long term, this may not change much as far as athletes driving the conversation about topics like compensation and player safety. The new governance structure would feature a 24-member board, only one member of which would represent student-athletes.
Is it an improvement? Absolutely. Will the lawsuits over concussions and money end? It depends on whether the NCAA makes players feel like their voices are heard as loudly as they should be.
4. This is Not a Precursor to Splitting From the NCAA
Despite the popular narrative, autonomy doesn't mean that the NCAA is limping into the woods to die.
SEC Commissioner Mike Slive pushed that narrative when threatening to abandon the NCAA in favor of a "Division 4" model if autonomy didn't pass. Obviously, that would be a moot point if autonomy survives the veto period, but as Wolken tweets, it's also impractical:
Schultz saying what I’ve said for a long time - leaving NCAA is an empty threat. Scare tactic that is completely impractical.— Dan Wolken (@DanWolken) August 7, 2014
As much as college football's power brokers lament the current system publicly, they've shown before they couldn't stand to live without it. In January 2013, the NCAA adopted numerous proposals designed to deregulate recruiting rules—with Emmert's backing—that were generally viewed as unenforceable. Less than a month later, Big Ten coaches and athletic directors issued a statement asking that a few of the proposals be re-examined.
Sure enough, the pushback put the proposals under further consideration, much to Emmert's dismay.
The point being, no matter how much the NCAA membership attempts to change the rules, or the process for developing the rules, the fact of the matter is that they need the rules.
Could autonomy lead to another split down the road, either by power conferences or non-power conferences? According to Infante, an NCAA expert, that's absolutely possible. When and how that would happen is unpredictable.
Of course. RT @TerryVandrovec: Am I nuts or is this merely the start? Either Power 5 will want more or Next 5 will be forced to fall back.— John Infante (@John_Infante) August 7, 2014
But breaking away from the NCAA simply isn't an option.
Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report.