To the typical fan, college sports will look much the same. The football field will still be 100 yards and a 3-pointer will still be worth, well, three points.
But off the field and court, significant changes are underway. On Thursday, the NCAA moved ahead with a plan that empowers the schools in the five wealthiest athletic conferences – the Big 5 – to effectively play by their own rules.
With more so-called autonomy, those conferences – the SEC, the ACC, the Pac-12, the Big Ten and the Big 12 - can set their own rules, which could have giant implications for college sports.
Here’s a primer on what the developments mean:
Q: Will the schools in the Big 5 conferences now pay their athletes big salaries like their professional counterparts?
A: Not quite. Don’t expect to see Louisiana State awarding its next quarterback a $10 million signing bonus, or Kentucky’s point guard landing his own endorsement deal. It’s more likely that the schools within the Big 5 conferences are likely to receive scholarships worth a few thousand dollars more.
Q: So, what kinds of rule changes should we expect?
A: The wealthiest schools say that they have long had the resources to provide better care for their athletes, but the NCAA rules wouldn’t let them. Now, school officials argue, they will be able to provide better medical coverage for athletes, in addition to offering more robust scholarships. The athletes will be allowed to borrow against future earnings for insurance. The new rules could overhaul the recruiting process, and dramatically lift restrictions against how athletes interact with advisers and agents. Under the old rules, nearly all contact was forbidden. Schools will also be able to provide more food to their athletes.
Q: So, is this good for the athletes?
A: The Big 5 conferences argue that the athletes will now be better off. But critics say that the changes amount to window dressing, and that the fundamental unfairness of college sports - the NCAA and its members profit off athletes, who risk their bodies in competition, without giving them a fair share of the profits - remains unchanged.
Q: College sports are already awash in money. Does this mean that the Big 5 conferences will spend even more?
A: Almost certainly. Early estimates say some schools could end up spending $5 million more per year on athletics. (Sports budgets at Big 5 schools can already top $60 million.)
Q: Who doesn’t like the new rules?
A: Many of the schools outside the Big 5 conferences feel that the plan will further divide college athletics into a camp of haves and have-nots. They argue that it will only accelerate the arms race between colleges programs competing to woo top recruits with their cutting-edge facilities and brand-name coaches.
But keep an eye out for “If you can’t beat em, join ’em.” Many of the schools outside the Big 5 are likely to push for the same rules in the coming months.
Q: Can this still be overturned? And if it falls, what happens?
A: There’s a precedent for a big measure like this one to be halted by the NCAA’s membership. It happened recently when the NCAA’s board sought to implement a $2,000 stipend for athletes.
In this case, it would take 75 universities outside of the Big 5 to disapprove. That would prompt a membership vote, and if 125 object, the plan would be halted until a resolution could be worked out. There are 351 schools in NCAA Division 1, 65 of them in the Big 5 conferences.
If the wider NCAA membership blocks the Big 5 plan, those conferences could invoke the nuclear option and break away from the NCAA to create a separate division. NCAA president Mark Emmert would clearly be opposed to a diminished NCAA.
Q: What does this mean for March Madness?
A: The games will go on. All of Division I – schools within the Big 5 conferences and schools outside it – will continue to compete for the same championships.