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STEVE DeSHAZO: ‘Power Five’ make their power play

GREENSBORO, N.C.—The concept of the rich getting richer is hardly new, as anyone who’s been to Hollywood or the Hamptons can attest. And college sports’ uneven playing field is about to get more slanted than ever.

On Aug. 7, an eight-member governance steering committee will present recommendations to the NCAA Division I board of directors to change the way intercollegiate sports are run. The proposal would give the 65 schools in the so-called “Power Five” conferences—the Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12, Pacific 12 and Southeastern—even more clout than they now wield, which is considerable.

And their “recommendations” are in much the same way a big brother “recommends” he gets the largest steak on the grill. There are consequences if you say no.

In this case, SEC commissioner Mike Slive recently hinted that the Power Five leagues could secede from the NCAA and start their own organization if they don’t get their way. That could effectively strangle many of the smaller schools which rely on NCAA basketball tournament payouts to fund their athletic programs.

So it’s probably in everyone’s best interests to give the big boys what they want, even if it widens the gap between haves and have-nots in football.

ACC commissioner John Swofford expects that’s what will happen.

“It largely gives the Power Five conferences what we have been asking for and keeps the current revenue-sharing approach and the NCAA basketball tournament intact, thus keeping us all under what we call the big tent of the NCAA,” Swofford said Sunday at the annual ACC kickoff media event. “The change that continues to be called for is key to ensuring that the model reflects the needs of the 21st-century student–athletes, while also recognizing how special the collegiate model is to the educational system within our country and to our culture.”

If you’re looking for a key word here, it’s “autonomy.” Many Power Five schools would like to grant four-year scholarships instead of the one-year rollover grants now in vogue. Because they can afford to, they’d be open to granting athletes an annual stipend, or a scholarship that covers the full cost of attendance—not just room and board.

Schools from smaller conferences don’t have the wherewithal to match those offers. So if you think current football powers have an advantage now, it’s about to get wider.

Said Swofford: “The autonomy aspect of it just opens up a lot of opportunities for the five conferences to do some things that we feel are important, and most of those things are initially related to the student–athletes’ situation.”

Ah, yes, those student–athletes. The Power Five didn’t make these recommendations in a bubble. They come against a backdrop in which former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon is suing the NCAA for using his likeness in a video game without compensating him, and Northwestern University football players voted to unionize, considering themselves employees of a private school that makes millions from their labor.

“I think if you haven’t been a part of these discussions for the last two or three years, the average fan out there may look at this and say it’s a knee-jerk reaction to the situation,” Swofford said. “It’s not.”

Maybe not, but Swofford and his peers have to be concerned that an adverse ruling could sterilize their billion-dollar golden goose. So they’re trying to appease their undercompensated labor force, just as the smaller schools have to keep their bigger brothers happy.

After leading UConn to the 2014 men’s basketball title, Shabazz Napier made even bigger headlines by claiming that he often went to bed hungry. That has already forced a change in food allowances at some schools.

But surprisingly, many ACC football players aren’t asking for much (if anything) more than they’re getting now.

“I feel the NCAA has done enough for me,” Boston College center Andy Gallik said. “I think the NCAA knows what’s best for us.”

And although he attends a private school, Duke guard Laken Tomlinson didn’t sound eager to unionize.

“I think there are risks to doing it,” he said. “You could be laid off, since you’re working as a staff. It could be good, but it could also get you fired.”

Although the Power Five league schools largely agree that they want to play by their own rules, there’s little consensus about what exactly those rules will be—and how to implement them. Will it lead to eventually paying players? If so, which ones and how much? As Swofford put it, “The devil’s in the details.”

Athletes may not be paid any time soon, but the NCAA’s lawyers will. Still, it seems inevitable that the big boys (and girls) will get their way.

Said Swofford: “The good ship Status Quo has sailed. It’s time for changes—and major changes.”


Steve DeShazo: 540/374-5443