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Tensions Over Big-Conference Autonomy Could Slow NCAA Progress

San Diego — Big-time athletic departments are still a long way from providing additional benefits to major-college athletes, but they took a step in that direction last week, as NCAA leaders met to discuss a plan for reorganizing Division I governance.

Nearly 60 percent of the 800 or so college presidents and athletics officials who attended the association’s annual convention here expressed support for giving the wealthiest five conferences more freedom to meet players’ financial needs and adopt rules more favorable to their positions.

The movement marked a major shift from a year ago, when many people saw a Division I split as inevitable and some were even concerned about the viability of the association.

The room here was divided fairly evenly among people from the 11 biggest conferences and those from the other 21. But the group appeared to have a common interest in revamping a governance structure that many say moves too slowly and has alienated athletic directors and others closest to students.

Despite the agreements, many details have yet to be worked out. Among the most contentious: who gets to hold the most chips, if anyone, on the Division I Board of Directors, and how much autonomy the elite conferences should have.

In interviews after the sessions, several major-conference commissioners said they were encouraged by the momentum. They are eager to provide players with more money toward their cost of attendance and other benefits.

But the plan to keep everyone together is not a certainty, said Jim Delany, commissioner of the Big Ten Conference, who suggested last month that a fourth NCAA division was “not off the table.”

Asked whether he saw everyone living happily under the same tent, he said he wasn’t sure yet.

“The broad strokes are out there, but it has to be voted in,” he said. “I don’t know what they’ll vote in.”

Some of the more revealing moments came as attendees—more than a third of whom were athletic directors—voted on such issues as whether students should have seats on the Division I board (67 percent favored the idea) and whether the division should outsource its enforcement operations (45 percent said yes).

Although some critics have pushed for an independent board, that idea never made it to the table. And the notion that anyone but presidents and chancellors would control the vast majority—if not all—of the board seats seemed unlikely.

How those seats are filled, and what weight each conference receives, remain open questions. Seventy-six percent of people here favored equal representation for all 32 Division I conferences. But it seemed more likely that a subcommittee of the board would offer presidents from conferences without seats a chance to air their views.

Despite strong interest from attendees in seeing a smaller board, board members in attendance suggested that a 17-member size was appropriate.

“We talked about the general concept of a smaller, nimbler board, but who you leave off is critical,” said Kirk H. Schulz, president of Kansas State University. Having seven or eight members, for example, would bring its own set of headaches, he said. “As a practical matter it’s just really, really problematic.”

Big-conference autonomy, however, was the most divisive issue. Alan J. Hauser, the faculty athletics representative at Appalachian State University and a former president of the Faculty Athletics Representatives Association, asked for more clarity about the issues on which the wealthiest leagues could operate independently.

Board leaders declined to give specifics, suggesting that they wanted to create a governance structure before determining that level of detail.

The lack of clarity concerned Mr. Hauser, whose institution competes in the Football Championship Subdivision, a level below the highest.

“If that’s not fairly communicated,” he said, “it gives this group virtual freedom to do what it wants.”

Maintaining the capability to override changes they don’t like is important to the lower-resource conferences. According to one poll here, nearly three-fourths of attendees want to keep the division’s override function at its current level, in which rules can be overturned with a five-eighths majority of voting institutions.

That promises to be a major sticking point with the wealthiest leagues, and in some ways it’s how Division I got into this mess in the first place. (After the board approved a $2,000 miscellaneous-expense allowance for players, Division I institutions rolled back the change.)

Members of the Division I board have proposed keeping some form of override, but raising the threshold over what exists today. They even suggested the possibility that the board might be given the power to act independently on certain issues, without any threat of override.

Over the next few months, NCAA leaders plan to work out more details of how a new structure might look. There will be more polls, more round-table talk, and perhaps even another division-wide meeting. Sometime by the end of the year, board members say, they want to see a new system in place. But if last week’s conversations were any indication, that’s probably an optimistic timeline.

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