Putterman: More power for Big Five conferences a good start to NCAA reform


Alex Putterman, Sports Editor

On Tuesday, the Associated Press obtained a letter from Pac-12 university presidents to their colleagues across the NCAA’s major conferences — the Pac-12, Big 12, Atlantic Coast Conference, Southeastern Conference and Big Ten — suggesting those leagues push for greater autonomy within the NCAA framework.

The Pac-12 presidents figure if they and their major-conference brethren have greater leeway in what they can provide players — cost-of-living stipends, increased medical benefits, guaranteed scholarships and more — they can increase the degree to which athletes benefit from revenue they produce.

It’s an idea that’s been tossed around as a partial response to calls for increased rights for college athletes and one that seems to be gaining traction.

After all, it’s only sensible the schools that benefit the most from the labors of college athletes should most reward those athletes. That’s capitalism at its simplest.

When former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter says universities should pay football players the full price of college attendance in return for the revenue they generate, he’s not talking about programs with shoestring budgets. He’s primarily talking about the major-conference money machines filling giant stadiums, selling thousands of jerseys and paying coaches seven-figure salaries.

Schools with limited athletic budgets can’t easily afford paying out revenue to athletes, but the conferences in the Big Five absolutely can.

In an interview with The Daily last month, NU President Morton Schapiro expressed support for the establishment of different rules for different conferences.

“These five major conferences have some different interests than a lot of the other ones,” Schapiro said. “Most of the revenue comes through those conferences. So to have greater control over our destinies makes some sense. … There are differences across those five conferences, but there’s also some commonality, and if we can better serve our student-athletes by taking control over the votes, given the revenue coming in, I think that would be a good move.”

In 2011, the NCAA weighed allowing schools to provide athletes a $2,000 stipend on top of their scholarships but eventually tabled the proposal in part because it was considered unfair to smaller athletic departments.

Along those lines, some argue that expanded rights for certain conferences would undermine competitive balance in college sports. This would allow the big-time programs recruiting advantages over their less affluent counterparts.

But only the world’s biggest idealist would entertain that competitive balance exists at the top rung of collegiate sports. No one recruited by Ohio State goes to Boise State, because although all schools play by the same rulebook, those rules govern vastly different realities.

Schools in the five biggest conferences already generate revenue through merchandise, ticketing and (especially) television that non-power conferences can’t match.

That means these powerhouses can invest in infrastructure that — through recruiting and preparation — results in success on the field. More power to the major conferences might exacerbate this effect, but competitive balance in college sports is not something anyone has ever worried about, and it’s hypocritical to start protesting on that basis now.

The biggest casualties of leeway for certain conferences would be traditional basketball schools outside of those leagues like Connecticut, Memphis and Georgetown. But this is about programs with money rewarding the players who earn it for them, and football generates the most money, so schools with strong football programs are naturally prioritized.

If a few basketball programs fall off slightly for the sake of hundreds of college athletes getting back some of the value they create, so be it.

The solution of increased autonomy for the Big Five conferences is far from perfect. Eventually, some of the benefits the Pac-12 presidents suggest (such as medical assistance for players who suffer debilitating injuries) should apply to all athletes in all sports at all schools. But this proposal starts the NCAA on the right track.

The fight for college athlete rights shouldn’t stop with this action. But it might as well start there.

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Twitter: @AlexPutt02