DESTIN, Fla. — On the final day of the SEC meetings, commissioner Mike Slive tried to blast a message to the rest of the NCAA at what he called “a historic moment.”
As various lawsuits related to athletes’ rights bear down, it has been a foregone conclusion that the power five conferences, including the SEC, would get autonomy from the rest of the NCAA in August. The so-called Power 5 would thus have the votes to make reforms, starting with a stipend for student-athletes.
But Slive used his wrap-up news conference to say that if the SEC doesn’t get its preferred voting threshold for that Power 5, then a starker breakaway would occur. Under the current plan, not much changes except off field rules. But Division IV would mean a separate football playoff, NCAA tournament and so on.
“If it doesn’t pass, the next move would be to go to a Division IV,” Slive said of the Power 5 conferences breaking into a new division.
Slive added later that while he couldn’t speak for the other Power 5 conference commissioners, he’d be surprised if the other four didn’t feel the same way.
“Change is hard. And I think we need to face up to change. But it is time,” Slive said. “I do believe this is a historic moment. And if we don’t seize the moment, we are going to make a mistake.
The issue is this: The NCAA board has been expected to approve autonomy for the SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12. But a sticking point is whether the NCAA will approve a voting threshold that Slive says is necessary to make tangible changes.
The SEC wants the threshold to be a vote of 60 percent of the 65 schools in the Power 5, as well as three of the five conferences. As it stands now, the NCAA steering committee plans to vote on whether it should be two-thirds of the schools and four of the five conferences.
In the minds of SEC officials, having to meet that threshold could be a poison pill toward passing needed legislation.
“We don’t want to pull out. We would love to be a part of NCAA Division I. But we’re in a squeeze here,” Florida president Bernie Machen said. “We have six lawsuits that name our conference in them, specifically, that have to do with the cost-of-attendance and stuff like that. And yet we would like to make changes and can’t because the NCAA doesn’t allow us to.”
Why is this important? Machen pointed to the lawsuits facing the NCAA, most notably the Ed O’Bannon case, which pushes for student-athlete rights. Machen said that if the Power 5 conferences don’t get enough voting power to make changes, the lawsuits have a better chance of succeeding.
“The whole intercollegiate model is at risk if we don’t do something,” Machen said. “A lot of people think that we have taken care of our coaches, we have taken care of our facilities, but we have done nothing four the athletes, essentially, in the last 20 years, that they did not have before that. And so we’re talking about trying to make something better for the student-athletes.
“And it’s not just meal money. We’re talking about medical coverage. We’re talking about the lifetime opportunity to get a degree. We’re talking incentives to help people come back and get their degree. So there are all kinds of things that can be done that would make the system better for the student-athletes if we could just get some flexibility.”
NCAA bylaws are one vote for every school, and the bigger (and richer) schools have been outvoted by the smaller schools on a stipend and other revenue issues.
“So we’re in a rock-and-a-hard-place here,” Machen said. “So we desperately would like some flexibility.”
The NCAA board of directors is due to vote in late August.
“I’m optimistic we’re not going to go to the Division IV,” Slive said. “If in August the board rejects the steering committee’s recommendating, you should call me up.”
Machen was less optimistic. In fact he called himself “somewhat pessimistic ... this is the NCAA we’re talking about.”
Meanwhile, for all the consensus about providing a stipend to athletes, there does not appear to be agreement on how to do that. Would it be all athletes or just those in the revenue sports (i.e. football and basketball)? And would it be a $2,000 stipend, as almost passed a few years ago, or more, or less?
“That’s the unknown,” Georgia athletics director Greg McGarity said.
McGarity said Georgia budgeted about $350,000 for the total stipend distribution if it happened. South Carolina president Harris Pastides said the stipend needs to go to all athletes but proportional to their scholarship. In other words, if a player is on a quarter-scholarship, as many in non-revenue sports are, then they would receive about one-fourth of the stipend/cost of attendance.
“It’s complex,” Slive said. “We started the dialogue. We started thinking about it. ... It involves the institutions, it’s not just an athletic issue, so you’ve got a lot of different areas where you have to bring to bear.”