Autonomy vote won’t widen gap in NCAA, it’s already there

08/07/2014 5:30 PM

08/07/2014 5:33 PM

In the most recent college football signing class, every player ranked in Rivals.com’s top 50, and 99 of the top 100, signed with schools that as of Thursday can officially be known as a power five conference.

No. 54, Dylan Sumner-Gardner, a defensive back from Mesquite, Texas, who signed with Boise State, is the outlier.

That the rich get richer applies in one sense of the NCAA’s vote to extend autonomy to the power five: With most in college sports wanting to provide more benefits for athletes, the power five conferences, with their billion-dollar television contracts, are best positioned to do so.

But when the power conferences are already landing 99 of 100 of the nation’s top football prospects, when the top 65 schools — those in the Big 12, Southeastern, Pac-12, Big Ten and Atlantic Coast conferences — have won all but one national championship since World War II, with the powers paying their head coaches in the millions and lining their football stadiums with luxury boxes, how much wider can the gap grow?

In guessing how autonomy will shape the future of college sports, begin with the idea that as long as football remains vibrant, if ratings remain healthy enough to secure massive media contracts, if cell phones and iPads work in stadiums to keep the students involved, not much will seem different to the fan.

Alabama was great before autonomy. It will be in any system.

Had the vote gone against the power five conferences, it would have made an intriguing story, but college football doesn’t need the NCAA as much as the NCAA needs college football. That’s essentially what SEC commissioner Mike Slive said last month when he revisited the notion of breaking away if the major programs didn’t carry the day on Thursday.

Basketball is a different matter. Some 285 schools that aren’t in a power conference play Division I hoops. A 250-mile radius from Kansas City collects such programs as Wichita State, Missouri State, UMKC, Creighton and Drake.

Those schools and some of their conferences have vowed to maintain their ambition. When the vote was revealed, some of the first to weigh in came from those leagues.

Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson noted that costs will increase but his league is committed to “providing the necessary benefits to protect (student-athletes’) overall health and welfare.”

Atlantic-10 commissioner Bernadette McGlade said her league would adopt proposals “that make sense and benefit our student-athletes.”

Undoubtedly, non-power conferences will feel the pinch and must search for even more sources of revenue. Earlier this week, The Star reported that the average student in the Big South Conference pays an annual $1,560 fee to athletics. In the Big Ten, that figure is $61. Why the difference? For one, the Big South doesn’t have its own television network.

Plenty of details must be ironed out. Schools inside a conference don’t always agree on matters, much less 65 schools from five conferences. “It’s hard enough for a conference of 10 or a conference of 14 to come to similarities” on issues, Kansas State athletic director John Currie said.

Change will come slowly. In January, the power five will conduct its first business meeting, and the first order of business is likely to be initiating a cost of attendance for athletes. Additional income to cover living expenses has been a driving force issue for autonomy, and the schools will have to agree on the value.

Extended medical coverage beyond graduation, allowing greater access to agents and providing for families to attend games are among other benefits power conferences have mentioned.

The benefits will phase in, and athletes will receive more than they ever have. But the rich aren’t getting richer. They already are.

To reach Blair Kerkhoff, call 816-234-4730 or send email to bkerkhoff@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter @BlairKerkhoff.

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