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NCAA Alters Governance Structure, Grants Autonomy to 'Big Five' Conferences

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The NCAA made drastic changes to its governance structure on Thursday, granting voting autonomy to its "Big Five" conferences—the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Big Ten, the Big 12, the Pac-12 and the Southeastern Conference—in certain areas of Division I rulemaking.

The so-called "system of autonomy" was designed with student-athletes' welfare in mind, according to the NCAA's documentation laying out the proposal. The "Big Five" schools—65 in total—will be permitted to make rule changes separate from the rest of Division I schools with regard to student-athletes' health and wellness, meals and nutrition, financial aid, expenses and benefits, insurance, recruiting, academic support, and time demands. The schools cannot vote on such things as rules regarding on-field play, scholarship limits, and, at least for the next two years, transfer policies.

For student-athletes currently making their college decisions, this governance overhaul could have a dramatic effect. If the "Big Five" schools vote to approve full-cost-of-attendance scholarships or guaranteed multi-year scholarships, for instance, schools outside the "Big Five" could face even more of an uphill climb in their recruitment of such prospective athletes.

To vote upon a change, the conferences will appoint a representative from each of their schools, along with three student-athlete representatives from each conference, for a total of 80 votes. Legislation can be passed in one of two ways: With 60 percent of all votes (48 votes) and majority support from schools in three of the five conferences or a simple majority of all votes (41 votes) and majority support from schools in four of the five conferences.

Nathan Hatch, the president of Wake Forest and the man responsible for leading the steering committee that came up with the autonomy proposal, explained the rationale to Marc Tracy of The New York Times.

"Within Division I there's such vastly different economics, and that would've been a huge burden to many schools," said Hatch. "And to some degree it's trying to respond to the wave of concern for student-athletes—treating them with dignity and respect, using some of those resources on their behalf."

The NCAA also significantly reworked its Division I Board of Directors and created a new legislative body known as the "Council" in tandem with the changes for the Big Five conferences. Instead of having 11 presidents from Football Bowl Subdivision schools and seven from Football Championships Subdivision schools and Division I conferences without football on its board of directors, the new board includes 10 FBS presidents, five FCS presidents, five presidents from Division I schools without football, one student-athlete, one athletics director, one "faculty athletics representative," chosen by the Faculty Athletics Representatives Association, and one "senior woman representative," chosen by the National Association for Collegiate Woman Athletics Administrators.

The Council, meanwhile, will be responsible for all the day-to-day operations of Division I athletics. It will include one representative for each of the 32 Division I conferences—at least 60 percent of whom will be athletic directors—along with two student-athletes, four conference commissioners, one representative selected by the Faculty Athletics Representatives Association, and one selected by the 1A Faculty Athletics Representatives.

In a statement, NCAA president Mark Emmert hailed the new model as a victory for student-athletes in particular.

"I am immensely proud of the work done by the membership. The new governance model represents a compromise on all sides that will better serve our members and, most importantly, our student-athletes," Emmert said. "These changes will help all our schools better support the young people who come to college to play sports while earning a degree."

The proposed restructuring is subject to a 60-day override period, with at least 75 schools needing to request an override for the board to reconsider the proposal. Assuming that doesn't happen—and the NCAA doesn't expect it to, per Brian Bennett of ESPN.com—the "Big Five" schools could begin voting on new legislation as soon as Oct. 1.

In sum: The rich schools got richer on Thursday when it comes to collegiate athletics. In the coming months, those riches should be extended to student-athletes.

Photo: NCAA President Mark Emmert gestures while speaking at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis on Aug. 7, 2014. The NCAA Board of Directors overwhelmingly approved a package of historic reforms Thursday that will give the nation's five biggest conferences the ability to unilaterally change some of the basic rules governing college sports. (Michael Conroy/AP)

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