NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — NCAA President Mark Emmert says giving the five wealthiest conferences in Division I the ability to make some of their own rules will allow revenue sports such as football and men's basketball to co-exist with the many nonrevenue programs that make up college sports.
Emmert addressed the NCAA convention Thursday and held a news conference after with several university presidents, two days ahead of the first meeting of the so-called autonomy group, the 65 schools that make up the Big Ten, Big 12, Atlantic Coast Conference, Pac-12 and Southeastern Conference.
"We've got 3 percent of the students that participate in those high-revenue, high-visibility sports," Emmert said. "We've got to find ways to integrate and address their concerns, while not negatively impacting the 97 percent and vice versa. The autonomy structure that (Wake Forest) President (Nathan) Hatch and his colleagues developed and designed is intended to allow the continued co-existence of all of the sports together."
On Saturday, the Big Five conferences will consider eight proposals, mostly related to increasing the value of an athletic scholarship by several thousand dollars to cover the full cost of attendance. Also on the agenda is a proposal that would prohibit athletic scholarships from being pulled or reduced because of athletic reasons and a concussion safety protocol proposal.
The legislation would be permissive, not mandatory, for the rest of Division I. Leaders from the other five other conferences that play FBS football, as well as some conferences that do not, such as the Big East and Atlantic 10, have said they plan to follow the Big Five's lead on cost of attendance.
Leaders of those Big Five conferences have been pushing for years to make rules that would allow them to spend more of the billions they make on media rights deals on student-athlete welfare. In the past, schools in some of the other 27 Division I conferences blocked attempts to pass legislation they feared they couldn't afford and would give the most powerful conferences unfair recruiting advantages.
Emmert and those who have supported autonomy say giving those conferences more freedom to direct more resources in the direction of athletes can help alleviate some of the pressure being put on the NCAA from courts, congress and other groups demanding more compensation for college athletes, especially those in the highest-profile sports.
"I don't think it's dire in a sense that there is anything imminent that's going to blow up around college sports," Emmert said. "College sport is such an integral part of the American culture and higher education that it's not simply going to dry up and go away. But on the other hand there are a lot of pressures right now on the collegiate model, on the amateurism model. There is a lot of concern about the loss of opportunity for students because resources will be allocated in different places to manage costs, that people will eliminate teams or eliminate scholarships opportunities for students."
Some, though, are concerned that autonomy is more of a problem than a solution to preserving the collegiate model.
Kathleen DeBoer, the executive director of the American Volleyball Coaches Association, is part of a coalition with other Olympic sports associations that believes autonomy and pending court cases that could force colleges to spend more on the highest-profile athletes will lead to the elimination of nonrevenue sports. She said she fears a "Hunger Games" mentality in which Olympic sports are fighting for survival against each other, and suggested those sports are better off separating from the big-money sports.
"We're very, very interested in working collaboratively with people in Division I leadership at all levels to develop some new models," she said. "What are the other options here besides just downsizing opportunities in Division I."
Michigan State President Lou Anna Simon, the outgoing chairwoman of the NCAA's executive committee, said the freedom of autonomy comes with responsibility to make the collegiate model work, keep Division I together and keep opportunities for college athletes from dwindling.
"If you've listened to our athletic directors, the people who are engaged, they're really worried about how we're going to take on that responsibility after we figure out cost of attendance," she said.