Autonomy for Big Five spells end to status quo

College sports as we’ve known it underwent a pretty massive upheaval this week.


To be honest, it’s hard to figure out whether this is the beginning of something extraordinary or the end of something great.

The only thing that seems certain is it’s irreversible.

As Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner John Swofford put it recently, “The good ship status quo has sailed.”

Two major decisions ensured the hypocrisy of the amateur athlete-students at the biggest collegiate sports factories is over.

On Thursday, the NCAA approved “autonomy” for the five largest revenue-producing conferences to regulate their own set of rules – paving the way for potential player benefits including stipends, full cost of attendance, enhanced insurance and family postseason travel expenses.

On Friday, a federal judge ruled that athlete-students in football and basketball have a right to be compensated up to $5,000 a year beyond just scholarships for the use of their likenesses in television and video games.

So in the coming years, star football and basketball players could not only be receiving up to $5,000 per year in cost-of-living stipends but could net a $20,000 payday upon graduation from a revenue-sharing trust fund.

Now you can see where all those massive TV contracts will be applied. The cost of doing business at the major-college level just got a lot more expensive.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. These athletes put in a lot of hard work so that their schools and coaches can profit handsomely on the backs of their effort. They should be entitled to some reasonable piece of the benefits.

“I think this is a great day for the student-athletes,” Georgia director of athletics Greg McGarity told a radio station after the autonomy approval. “It allows them to basically be able to take advantage of some of the wealth that we’ve been able to generate through the SEC Network and all the tremendous things the conference office has done to drive revenue to the institutions.”

How much this all fundamentally changes the collegiate sports landscape is uncertain. The haves and have-nots will still exist as always – only the haves will have a little more. The have-nots will find it even tougher to compete.

Thursday’s approval of “autonomy” for the SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 conferences makes sense, the “Big Five” aren’t like the other 27 collegiate athletic conferences in the country. It’s farcical to try to apply the same style of governance on Georgia as you would Savannah State. We’re not even talking apples vs. oranges; we’re talking Jupiter vs. its moons.

But it’s not as simple as that, of course. Within each of the big conferences the differences in institutions can be substantial. Georgia Tech doesn’t have the same financial well to draw from as Clemson or Georgia. And for all the Jupiters like Alabama, Ohio State and Texas there are plenty of dwarf-planet Plutos like Wake Forest, Vanderbilt and Purdue.

These are issues that the Big Five will have to resolve on their own, and that might mean annexing a few more satellites from the lesser conferences to help the bottom line.

The cost of all this on the fan experience is the biggest concern – and not just at the ticket counter.

The Big Five is largely a football construct. The best recruits in the nation are already almost entirely swept up by these power conferences. That won’t change.

But what about the way football schedules are constructed? According to an ESPN poll, the majority of coaches in the major conferences are in favor of scheduling only against other Big Five opponents. That would eliminate prominent non-conference opponents like Boise State, Brigham Young, Central Florida and Cincinnati who got left standing when the expansion music stopped.

Count South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier among those not in favor of a closed football shop.

“The Big Five conferences all playing each other, I don’t think that makes a lot of sense, really,” Spurrier said this week. “Out of conference, playing East Carolina is a lot tougher game than maybe picking up one of those bottom Big Ten teams. ... The SEC, we have some down-the-line teams just like every conference.”

There isn’t anything wrong with having a non-conference regional foe on the calendar. In the new collegiate order, Georgia Southern will need the payday from a Georgia game more than ever to survive financially.

Of greater concern is what this might all mean to college basketball and its cash cow NCAA Tournament. What the Big Five choose to do will have immense trickle-down effects the other more than 200 Division I programs trying to stay competitive. The beauty of March Madness is the general balance between the Davids and Goliaths. But if the Goliaths get too “autonomous,” the whole system might collapse.

The Big Five leaders assure us that won’t happen.

“It largely gives the power five conferences what we have been asking for and keeps the current revenue sharing approach and the NCAA basketball tournament intact, thus keeping us all under what we call the big tent of the NCAA,” Swofford said.

If only it were that simple. These are seismic shifts that are taking place. Like climate change predictions, we’re not entirely certain how immediate or dramatic the effects might be.

But we can be certain there’s no turning back from whatever this new future holds. You can see a horizon where the Big Five’s need to make more money to cover everything results in a bigger wedge between them and the rest.

“I hope there’s not another next step of separation where those 65 schools go off on themselves,” Atlantic 10 commissioner Bernadette McGlade said this week. “Because if they do, that would be a sad day for intercollegiate athletics.”

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