Aug 31, 2013; Cincinnati, OH, USA; A sold out crowd at Nippert Stadium during a game with the Purdue Boilermakers and the Cincinnati Bearcats. Mandatory Credit: David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

'Power Five' Autonomy Will Eventually Kill Other Programs

I’m going preface this article by saying that I hate being a pessimist.  In fact, I’m usually the eternal optimist, especially when it comes to my favorite team, the Cincinnati Bearcats.

But ESPN’s Brian Bennett is reporting that the NCAA and the “Power Five” conferences have taken the first step toward giving schools in those leagues the ability to make their own rules.  The Division I board of directors has approved the ACC, Big Ten, Big-12, PAC-12, and SEC to begin writing propositions for new rules and regulations –  rules that could go into effect as early as January of 2015, five months from now.  The only remaining hurdle for the Power Five to clear is having fewer than 75 other Division I schools vote to veto the change.

The big issue here is whether or not college athletes should be paid – and if so, how much that compensation should be.  It is my continued view that college athletes should not be paid any type of “salary” under any circumstances.  I would be in favor of increasing the value of an athletic scholarship to the full cost of attendance, providing athletes a per diem reimbursement or stipend for miscellaneous expenses, such as food.  Above that, any “salary” is not only unnecessary, but an affront to the rest of the student body.  A free college education and a stipend is plenty, especially when the vast majority of these athletes’ fellow students are going into huge amounts of debt to pay their own tuition.  You can read more about my opinion here (my comments are at the very bottom of the page).

Bennett mentions some of the proposals in his article, which include a stipend of up to $5000 to reflect the full cost of attendance, guaranteed 4-year scholarships, schools providing health insurance for players, and travel allowances for players’ families to attend postseason games.  To me, this seems fairly reasonable, and is basically in line with what I suggested back in April when the staff put together the roundtable on paying student-athletes (linked above).

I am 100% okay with a $5000 increase in the value of a scholarship and some of these other rules that the Power Five want to implement.  But here’s the problem I see: If the Power Five conferences gain this autonomy from the NCAA, they are quite literally being handed a blank check.  Where will their advances stop?  As a fan of a team outside the Power Five, the answer scares me  – It won’t ever stop.

If we want to start “paying” athletes a per diem allowance, fine.  If we want to only require the Power Five, plus anyone else who opts-in, to provide such allowances, fine.  But do it through the current NCAA system, so that some schools don’t get to write their own rules.

It’s my understanding that schools like UC, which are outside of the Power Five leagues, will be able to “opt-in” to the new rules and “pay” their players also.  Not allowing mid-majors to opt in would be devastating to many successful and competitive programs.  In college football, Boise State, BYU, Central Florida, Fresno State, and (of course) our Cincinnati Bearcats come to mind as programs who have had success, but would be relegated to mediocrity for the foreseeable future.

But college basketball would be the most hurt.  UConn (both mens’ and womens’), Gonzaga, Memphis, San Diego State, Wichita State, the entire “New” Big East (including Butler, Creighton, Georgetown, Villanova, Marquette, Xavier, etc.), and our Bearcats would all be left out in the cold.  I could go on and on listing non-Power Five schools who field perennially strong basketball programs.  Even if these schools can opt-in to the new rules, it will start an arms race that non-Power Five schools simply can’t keep pace in.

Schools who opt-in to the Power Five’s rules will still eventually be killed by power conference autonomy.  It will just be a much slower death.  It will be fine at first.  For the first 5-10 years, you probably won’t even notice any difference.  Successful mid-major schools can afford to pay players an extra $5000 a year.  But some time down the road, the Power Five will use its TV money (about $12-15 million more per school, per year) to continue to increase permissible benefits until the others can’t afford to continue to opt-in anymore.  The Power Five are the ones making the rules now, remember?  No more NCAA oversight to make the rules the same for everyone.

The Power Five will raise the bar higher and higher, smirk at the mid-majors, and say “catch us, if you can.”  Before we know it, the power conferences will become the Standard Oil of sports, forcing all of the little guys out of big-time college athletics.  Mike Slive and Jim Delaney will share the role of John D. Rockefeller.  If Cincinnati and 35 other non-Power Five schools opt-in to paying a $5000/year stipend to players, and are still getting recruits that the big boys want, and still taking away wins and bowl spots (money!), and still taking NCAA tourney bids (money!) from the big boys, the Power Five will just make a new rule and allow a $10,000/year stipend.  And then $15,000 a few years later.  And then $20,000.  Whatever it takes to stay ahead and crush the opposition.  If you think I’m crazy, watch ESPN or read articles online, and look at all the people who are already calling for the Power Five to play only other Power Five schools.

And the shame is, NCAA and the non-Power Five schools won’t be able to do a damn thing about it, because they signed over the autonomy and authority to make the rules to the Power Five in August of 2014.  In twenty-five years, fans from Cincinnati, UConn, Butler, Georgetown, Marquette, Memphis, Villanova, and company will look at each other and say, “remember when we used to go to Finals Fours and win national championships?  Now, get third-rate players and all play in one-bid leagues.”  There will be Boise State and UCF fans sharing nostalgic stories of their BCS wins of yesteryear as they play in the 2039 Bob’ Bowl.  Enjoy the glory days while you can, because your alma mater’s/favorite team’s days of prominence are probably over.  College sports have officially been ruined by money, and all we can do now is hope that Santa Ono’s phone rings and the Big XII is on the other end.

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