The NCAA’s approval Thursday of a package granting autonomy to the country’s five biggest conferences is being closely watched by the schools and leagues that make up the rest of Division I athletics.
“It’s definitely a matter of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots,’ ” Gardner-Webb football coach Carroll McCray said. “When a group tries to break off on their own, it’s usually the ‘haves’ who can do that. I just hope this doesn’t dampen the strength or tear down the integrity of what we have in the NCAA now.”
Gardner-Webb, in McCray’s terms, is one of the have-nots. The Bulldogs play in the Big South, a Division I league far removed from the rich television contracts and massive crowds associated with the so-called Power Five leagues – the ACC, SEC, Big 10, Big 12 and Pac-12.
“The NCAA has always given us guidelines that we can all go by,” McCray said. “And that’s allowed us all to have level ground with the opportunities we all have. Now people are starting to move out and do their own things. It will be interesting to see how it works.”
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The autonomy the 65 schools (including Notre Dame) in the big conferences are seeking (Thursday’s vote is subject to a 60-day veto period) might not suit some smaller leagues, home to about 285 schools.
“The biggest issue for all of us nationally is, ‘What does autonomy encompass?’ ” said Charlotte 49ers athletics director Judy Rose, whose school joined Conference USA in 2013. “As long as it doesn’t affect the competitive playing field, it would be OK. But we’ll have to see.”
Among the changes the big conferences are seeking is cost of attendance for athletes – expanding scholarships to include more money beyond tuition, room and board and books – as well as more health care and continuing education.
“It’s sort of like mom and apple pie, the way this has all gone; if you say you’re against cost of attendance, people say we’re not maximizing student-athlete welfare,” Rose said. “But it’s not like student-athlete welfare is in bad shape.
“There’s not a regular student on any of our campuses who would not trade places with one of our athletes, who are leaving school debt-free, and have things like free health care and tutoring.”
Rose, however, said if cost of attendance were to be passed by the Power Five, and Conference USA were to follow suit, Charlotte would figure out a way to pay for it.
The Atlantic 10, which doesn’t sponsor football, is one of college basketball’s stronger leagues, sending six teams to last season’s NCAA tournament, more than the ACC and the SEC. The Atlantic 10, which Davidson joined this year, wants to ensure it has a voice in men’s basketball matters big and small.
“The Atlantic 10 feels strongly that we should be at the table, at least in basketball,” Davidson athletics director Jim Murphy said. “When it comes to the basketball conversation, we want to make sure that (the NCAA) is appropriately supporting our student-athletes and helping (the A-10) maintain its national level of success.”
Said A-10 Commissioner Bernadette McGlade in a statement: “The real work begins now as we see how the five equity conferences manage their newfound ability to approve legislation. As for the Atlantic 10, we will evaluate each opportunity and adopt the proposals that make sense, benefit our student-athletes and will be impactful to maintaining the national success that we have established in NCAA championship competition.”
Conference USA, which Charlotte will join as a football-playing member in 2015, is one of five other NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision leagues not included with the so-called power conferences.
“Our five conferences and their five conferences have a lot of history together, and we’ve always found a way to get in a room and to be good listeners and work it out,” C-USA Commissioner Britton Banowsky told reporters at the league’s football media day in July.
“I also think having 60 schools together is just not enough for them to be able to have a base from which to operate. You need a bigger base.”