NCAA Directors Decide To Allow More Freedom To Wealthier Schools

Major changes are expected for the NCAA, whose board meets Thursday. Directors will consider giving the five power conferences more autonomy, as well as changing the way scholarships are administered.

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Today, the NCAA announced what could be major changes in the way it operates. Among those potential changes, more autonomy for the five wealthiest Division 1 conferences and more benefits for student athletes. The board of directors endorsed the moves today at their headquarters in Indianapolis. Final approval could come in August, when the board meets next.

NPR's Tom Goldman has been following developments and he joins us now. And, Tom, why don't you walk us through just what the NCAA board did today?

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Sure. The Division 1 board of directors voted to endorse plan to restructure Division 1 the following way. It would allow the 65 schools from the so-called Power Conferences - that's the Big 10, the Big 12, the Pac-12, Atlantic Coast Conference and Southeastern conference - it would allow them to have autonomy from the rest of Division 1 and make their own rules to provide more student-athlete benefits.

Now, these 65 schools generally have the most money and can afford the extra benefits. And these are some of the areas they're targeting: Financial aid, including guaranteed athletic scholarships and scholarships that cover the true cost of going to school - they often come up short. Other possible benefits: insurance policies that protect an athlete's future earnings; and paying for athlete's family members to go to athletic events, like March Madness.

Now, the board has endorsed the plan. Now it goes out to full membership, that's about 350 Division 1 schools, for comment and feedback. Then the final vote, as you mentioned, likely in August.

BLOCK: And what's the significance of giving these wealthier schools in these bigger conferences that kind of autonomy?

GOLDMAN: Well, Division 1 is a 350-school democracy, with smaller, less wealthy schools having same voting power as big wealthier schools. Now, democracy is good until it becomes a morass of competing interests, as often happens in Division 1 on money issues. So the smaller schools have been able to scuttle proposed reforms on athlete benefits because they say they don't have enough money or don't want to give athletes more.

This step to restructure would make it easier to get things done. In the words of NCAA: Allowing Division 1 to be more nimble, streamlined and responsive to needs. In this case, the needs of college athletes; a growing number of people believe those athletes deserve more benefits, in particular, the athletes at the biggest sports schools generating the most revenue from football and men's basketball.

BLOCK: And, Tom, of course momentum has been building in recent years to let college athletes share the wealth in big-time college sports. Is the NCAA responding to that, taking this action because of that external pressure?

GOLDMAN: You know, they say no. Today's meeting was a regularly scheduled board of director's meeting and they've been talking about restructuring since January. And even though scholarship football players at Northwestern University are voting tomorrow on whether to join a union. The NCAA says that has nothing to do with what's happening today.

But the NCAA obviously is aware of that growing momentum: the disparity between the millions of dollars generated by football Bowl games; the $10.8 billion TV contract for March Madness; the disparity between that and athletes who play in those games and whose scholarships often leave them several thousand dollars short of the true cost of attendance. The NCAA obviously is aware of several lawsuits pending against them, as well.

BLOCK: Tom, you mentioned that union vote tomorrow from the football players at Northwestern. Remind us how that came about?

GOLDMAN: Well, the push to unionize was a group of athletes, football players at Northwestern, essentially saying the NCAA hasn't been responsive to our needs, that we feel more like employees without rights than student-athletes. And a regional director of National Labor Relations Board in Chicago agreed with them, ruled last month they are employees and had the right to unionize.

So tomorrow, a reported 76 scholarship football players are eligible to vote to join a union. Now, since this case is being appealed, chances are we won't know for sometime the result of the vote. But a significant moment, really, in what appears to be a time of growing change in college sports.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Tom Goldman talking about proposed changes by the NCAA.

Tom, thanks so much.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome.

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