Officials at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln feel like those at many big-time college football powers, tired of taking a beating from critics for “financial exploitation” of student-athletes.
But when such schools have sought to get the NCAA to change the rules to let them provide more dollar support or educational assistance to student-athletes, they've been outvoted by the smaller Division I schools, many of which can't afford the additional aid.
It's that kind of frustration that's leading the five major football-playing conferences to push for more rule-making power during the NCAA convention that gets underway in San Diego this week. The convention will feature the start of a major debate about how the NCAA's governance can be restructured to address the concerns of the schools in what UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman calls the “five resources conferences.” Central to those concerns is the degree to which the bigger schools can assist their athletes.
“We've been put in this terrible position of being attacked, but we have no control over our own destiny,” Perlman said. “We think it's critically important that we have more authority to make the kinds of rules and regulations we can live with.”
Creighton University and its mostly non-football playing brethren in the Big East are also gearing up for the debate. Creighton Athletic Director Bruce Rasmussen said he goes into the convention with an open mind, and he ultimately expects there will be changes that acknowledge the bigger schools' concerns.
“We certainly are willing to listen to what the big five's needs are, and we are probably more willing to go along with them than some are,” Rasmussen said.
The NCAA governance debate has been simmering for some time.
The frustration of schools in the Big Ten, the Big 12, the Pac-12, the SEC and the ACC over being outvoted by smaller Division I schools has spurred speculation the conferences could completely break away from the NCAA. Others have suggested that the schools be put into their own new division within the NCAA.
But a proposal that will serve as the starting point for the convention discussions takes a different approach.
The current “big tent” model of Division I schools would be preserved, with the big football schools continuing to fall under the same general rules that govern all of the approximately 340 Division I schools. The current revenue distribution also wouldn't change, according to the plan unveiled last week by Wake Forest President Nathan Hatch, chairman of the NCAA Division I board.
However, the 65 schools in the five BCS conferences would be given legislative autonomy over several sensitive areas they believe make them different than the other Division I schools.
That includes the area of aid to athletes.
As big television money has escalated within college football, schools in the power conferences have faced heightened criticism for spending millions on seven-figure coaches' salaries and immaculate facilities while failing to meet some of the most basic needs of athletes.
The convention proposal rejects calls to pay athletes directly, which would essentially make them professionals and alter the collegiate model of athletics.
But it does call for the big schools to be able to pay athletes up to — but not exceeding — the full cost of attending college, going beyond just the room, board, tuition, fees and books that are covered by scholarships now.
Nebraska officials once calculated the average student in Lincoln faces nearly $3,500 in additional costs, including such miscellaneous expenses as travel home, gas money, clothing, laundry and personal care.
Many financially needy students are able to obtain federal Pell grants to cover such costs.
A proposal to allow schools to pay athletes a stipend of up to $2,000 for uncovered costs was approved by the NCAA Board in 2011. It was later shelved due to opposition from smaller schools. Creighton was among those that helped override the plan — not because of money, Rasmussen says, but because like many schools it felt the plan had not been very well thought out.
Other proposed areas of increased autonomy for the big five conference schools in the pending plan include:
» Funding for student-athletes to finish their undergraduate degree anytime in their lifetime, including if they had left early to turn pro. That was among proposals laid out by Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany last summer.
» Unspecified “enhanced benefits” to support athletes' needs.
» Creation of “athletics dead periods” where student-athletes could access other opportunities outside of athletics.
» More support for academically at-risk student-athletes.
» Setting rules regarding agents and advisers.
» Determining the limits on numbers of non-coaching personnel allowed on team staffs.
In addition to that new autonomy, the bigger schools would also be given more weight when it comes to developing other NCAA policies. The bigger conferences currently have more voting power per school, but not as much as they believe they should.
The proposal is to go up for debate at the convention on Thursday and Friday, with final action perhaps coming as soon as April.
Perlman said Nebraska goes into the convention backing a specific Big Ten proposal, one he declined to reveal.
However, when asked his personal opinion on restructuring last week, Perlman said he sees “some promising elements” in the proposal Hatch laid out.
Perlman said Nebraska is “totally opposed” to paying athletes. But he supports paying the full cost of attendance, making undergraduate scholarships good for a student-athlete's lifetime, and for big schools being allowed to pay for parents to accompany their children during official recruiting visits — all costs that can't be covered now.
He'd prefer to avoid creation of a new big school division within the NCAA, which would create problems for the smaller Division I schools. And he's opposed to talk of completely breaking away from the NCAA.
“We want to be part of the enterprise,” Perlman said.
“The critical point in all of this is that the five resources conferences must have control of their own destiny, and thus some autonomy over the regulations that govern them, particularly with regard to support of student-athletes.”