Those power-five conferences—the SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12—will now have more ability to make rules for themselves. This decision could well be the bell-weather for a seismic change in college football, one that should benefit a program like Nebraska.
So what exactly happened?
The NCAA decided that the 65 schools in the power-five conferences would now be able to make rules for themselves in a number of different areas, including things like providing additional stipends to student-athletes, providing insurance coverage for athletes during and after their participation in competition, rules limiting staff sizes and sharing of television and image-rights revenues with student-athletes.
Fundamentally, the change reflects in the NCAA rulebook the reality that has existed for some time now—that the power-five conference teams are simply engaging in a different enterprise than non-power-five conference football programs.
The staggering amounts of money that the power-five conferences generate with their television revenues allows them to do things that non-power-five conferences simply cannot afford.
Under current NCAA rules, a school like Nebraska (or Alabama, USC or any other major national powerhouse) had to be governed by the same set of rules as schools like New Mexico State and South Alabama, programs with dramatically fewer economic resources available.
The argument against the autonomy proposal was simple and straightforward—all these teams are (ostensibly) competing in the same division, and they should play by the same rules. Allowing the power-five conferences to have their own rules will give those schools a baked-in competitive advantage, even more than they already have.
And that argument is correct. Under the new autonomy rules, the power-five conference programs will have a competitive advantage over the non-power-five schools. The rich will, indeed, get richer.
That’s why the rule change is good for Nebraska. Not only is Nebraska a member of arguably the most powerful financial conference, the B1G, Nebraska itself as a program is one of the 20 most financially powerful programs in the country. If the rich are to get richer under this program, then Nebraska will clearly benefit.
More importantly, though, the rule is something that is a practical necessity. The NCAA—indeed, the entire model of amateurism and student-athletes—is under assault from a number of lawsuits dealing with everything from image likeness to anti-trust violations.
Many in the power-five conferences want to take steps, such as a “full cost of attendance” scholarship or an expansion of insurance benefits past graduation for student-athletes. But those efforts were blocked by the non-power-five conference programs because (rightfully so) those programs could not afford to offer those benefits.
With this newfound autonomy, the power-five programs will be better able to proactively address the issues that are bedeviling the NCAA. Certainly, much of the motivation for those programs will be self-preservation of the current goose laying the golden eggs of fat television contracts.
But a byproduct of that self-preservation may very well be some concrete steps to improve the lives of the student-athletes that make the Saturday spectacles we all love so dearly possible.
(And, selfishly, perhaps even come up with a mechanism to compensate student-athletes for the use of their images and likenesses, making a resurrection of the EA Sports NCAA Football video game series a possibility.)
Yes, these rules aren't fair to the non-power-five programs. But given the results of a new poll by ESPN.com's Brett McMurphy (h/t Tom Fornelli of CBS Sports) that a plurality of coaches in power-five conferences are in favor of excluding non-power-five programs from their schedules, we may be heading toward a de facto breakaway of the power-five conferences from the rest of the NCAA in football.
That breakaway, whether it be de facto by exclusive scheduling or de jure by the creation of a “Division Four” as discussed by SEC commissioner Mike Slive, has its own benefits and costs to be debated. But there is little doubt that such a breakaway will be for the benefit of the power-five programs and at the expense of the non-power-five.
As harsh as it sounds, then, the fact that the rule change is good for the rich means that the rule change is good for Nebraska.
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