Pac-12, Big Ten commissioners talk autonomy plans

Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott and Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany believe it’s time for the NCAA model to change and for autonomy to be given to the five major football conferences.

They’re not alone, either.

Two of college football’s biggest powerbrokers spoke out on the topic Wednesday during an event in downtown San Francisco to promote the bowl game at the new 49ers’ stadium. The upgraded bowl will be played between teams from the Pac-12 and Big Ten on Dec. 30 in Santa Clara.

Scott said there is “broad support” to let schools from the five major conferences — which also includes the SEC, ACC and Big 12 — decide how their own legislative process works in many areas affecting their athletes. Delany said “I hope we can develop some momentum and act, and act in a way that maybe we haven’t been able to act over the last 25 years.”

The public calls for action come after Pac-12 university presidents sent a letter to their colleagues at the other major football conferences last week formalizing plans for sweeping changes to the NCAA model and autonomy for those leagues. A copy of the letter was first obtained by The Associated Press on Tuesday.

Spurred in part by Northwestern football players’ move to unionize, the Pac-12 presidents’ plan for reform includes many proposals commissioners have been advocating for several years, including a stipend for athletes. The NCAA is working on a new governance structure that will allow the five wealthiest conferences to make some rules without the support of smaller Division I schools.

“The letter represents a sense of urgency that our presidents have,” Scott said. “But maybe more importantly, our desire to be really, really clear about what we want to see happen. And we want to make sure that we have alignment among conferences. We don’t want to go through this governance reform process and get autonomy and wake up and find out in January that not everyone agrees. We want to know now. And we want to tell the world now what we want to do.”

SEC Commissioner Mike Slive, who has long advocated for many of these same reforms, also said during a phone interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday that his conference will continue to support autonomy. The NCAA board of directors is expected to vote on restructuring in early August.

The five power conferences are seeking decision-making powers in funding the full cost of scholarships, handling health care and other areas involving their athletes. Other changes under consideration include providing money for families to travel to NCAA tournaments, more resources for academic and career counseling, creating mandatory break times from sports and relaxing transfer rules.

Scott said he doesn’t expect much pushback on the issue from schools in small and mid-major conferences. Asked if the autonomy initiative could create a bigger divide between conferences, Scott said most collegiate leaders — even those from non-major conferences — believe that idea is outdated.

“One size fits all doesn’t work anymore,” Scott said. “The conferences that can afford to and want to do more for student-athletes ought to be able to do it. I’d be a little surprised if that view were still out there.”

The push for reform is being accelerated because of the seemingly countless issues facing the NCAA right now.

Besides the movement to unionize by Northwestern football players, the NCAA is also facing litigation and possible Congressional hearings. That includes an antitrust lawsuit led by former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon and 19 other former athletes who claim the NCAA unlawfully profits off of athletes while restricting their ability to earn income while in college. The trial is scheduled to begin June 9.

One thing the commissioners can all agree on: the litigation will probably take several years — and likely several appeals — to resolve and, therefore, so will the collegiate model.

“I don’t think it’s a Democratic or Republic issue,” Delany said. “I think people have a lot of affection for college sports in America. And I think in a lot of cases they say, ‘Why don’t you guys do better?’ And I agree with that. I think that will be the challenge, whether it’s a large group or small group, to find the sweet spot — the right balance between education and athletics, entertainment, student-athlete health and welfare, and so on.”