D-Day is at hand for the Power Five Conferences and the NCAA. Tomorrow a vote is expected to give the biggest, wealthiest athletic programs in the country preliminary approval for the autonomy they've spent two years campaigning for. If the proposal is OK'd, the gap between the haves and have-nots will widen. If the proposal is unexpectedly shot down, the stage could be set for the haves to break away from the have-nots altogether.
As you know by now, "the Five Conferences," as Mike Slive calls them, want to be able to provide full-cost-of-tuition scholarships to some of their student-athletes. They want to provide better medical coverage and insurance. They want to be able to use a bit of their massive revenue to support the players who play in revenue-producing sports. Some leagues and schools -- like Indiana -- are already drawing up letters, plans and declarations which would serve as something akin to a "student-athlete bill of rights."
While the schools certainly have the best interest of their athletes in mind, there's another reason for the big leagues and big schools to push for autonomy at this time -- protection. Lawsuits like the Ed O'Bannon case have shown that well-represented athletes can make serious waves for the NCAA and its member institutions. A union vote at Northwestern was the first step toward student-athletes banding together to create their own power bloc. More and more athletes are also leaving school early for the riches of the pro leagues and to avoid potential injuries in a sophomore, junior or senior year.
Not to be too cynical, but you can be sure there's a good deal of self-interest in this autonomy push.
Whether or not it passes tomorrow will go along way toward shaping the college sports landscape as we know it, especially on the football front. Should the measure pass, your favorite SEC team will further separate itself from the weaklings that likely fill three-quarters of its non-conference football schedule every season. While Florida Atlantic isn't going to win many head-to-head recruiting battles against Alabama or Texas or UCLA anyway, an "aye" vote tomorrow will remove even the remotest possibility of a small school surprising a big-boy program ever again. A player could go to Florida and get a bigger scholarship and better medical coverage or he could go to Eastern Michigan. Heck, even if Dad and Grandpap played at ol' EMU, there's little chance that Junior would stick around Ypsilanti with the Gators or another Power Five school offering more of everything.
If the autonomy proposal flops, then push will finally come to shove. For a year, the Power Five commissioners hinted at some sort of a Division IV set up under the NCAA umbrella, minus all the other current FBS schools. This spring, Mike Slive dropped the Big One and took things to a new level by stating the possibility of a breakaway in plain English. He did so again at SEC Media Days late last month.
We at MrSEC.com doubt that a total break from the NCAA is a realistic option. The Power Five would have to set up its own rule book, create its own system of governance, and then vote to fill the positions within that system. There's not a lot that the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC agree on -- aside from wanting more autonomy -- so it seems far-fetched in our view that the 65 schools making up those leagues could ever find enough common ground to create all of the above. Still, it remains a theoretical possibility.
What's more likely to follow a "no" vote is a Division IV set-up at the very tip-top of the NCAA pyramid. The big leagues would close off the College Football Playoff to themselves and keep every bit of the television revenue. If the have-nots don't like their current level of revenue, they sure wouldn't like having their spigot on the playoff pipeline cut-off. In a Division IV, the biggest schools may or may not play the schools from the lesser leagues. Alabama's Nick Saban has long been a proponent of Power Five teams playing 12 games each year against other Power Five teams only. Again, it would be a financial gut punch for smaller schools like MTSU to miss out on a payday from playing Tennessee or for UL-Lafayette to lose a payday for visiting LSU.
Put simply, tomorrow's vote will determine whether or not SEC fans will see change in the collegiate sporting world or drastic change in the collegiate sporting world. Those hoping something similar to the current NCAA model will be maintained need to pray that the vote goes in the Power Five conferences' way. Otherwise, the movement toward a Division IV or a full-scale breakaway could get quite real, quite fast.
And we don't believe there are many SEC fans who want to see that happen. After all, the status quo has been very good for the Southeastern Conference and its 14 members. A new structure would offer no guarantees of continued success.