By Brian Bennett ESPN.com
INDIANAPOLIS -- The power conferences in major college sports just got more powerful -- maybe a lot more so.
The NCAA Division I board of directors on Thursday voted 16-2 to allow the schools in the top five conferences to write many of their own rules. The autonomy measures -- which the power conferences had all but demanded -- will permit those leagues to decide on things such as cost-of-attendance stipends and insurance benefits for players, staff sizes, recruiting rules and mandatory hours spent on individual sports.
"This keeps Division I together," board chairman and Wake Forest president Nathan Hatch said. "I'm thrilled that Division I and all its virtues can be maintained, and I think this is the pathway to do so."
The top 64 schools in the richest five leagues (the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, SEC and Pac-12) plus Notre Dame can submit their own legislation by Oct. 1 and have it enacted at the January 2015 NCAA convention in Washington, D.C. Several presidents said Thursday that the full cost-of-attendance stipends, which could be worth between $2,000 and $5,000 per player, likely would be the first item taken up. The NCAA approved those stipends three years ago, but legislation was halted when the full membership voted it down. Four-year scholarship guarantees are expected to be on the early agenda, as well.
"I think you'll see those issues be acted on very aggressively, right away," NCAA president Mark Emmert said.
Other new rules the biggest conferences could enact include loosened restrictions involving contact between players and agents, letting players pursue outside paid career opportunities and covering expenses for players' families to attend postseason games. Areas that will not fall under the autonomy umbrella include postseason tournaments, transfer policies, scholarship limits, signing day and rules governing on-field play.
Leagues outside the Power Five can opt to adopt the same rules. Of course, many schools won't be able to afford measures like cost-of-attendance stipends. That could create an even larger competitive imbalance between schools in the power conferences and those in leagues like the Sun Belt, MAC or even in the FCS.
"There is a risk the gap will grow; I think we ought to be candid about that," Rice president David W. Leebron said. "We're in a world of radically different resources. But those schools with more resources ... will have some ability to spend those resources in ways that are actually more rational, particularly with a priority on student-athlete welfare."
Hatch said there was "some conflict" and disagreement in the board's discussion about autonomy, which passed without a unanimous vote. Ultimately, though, even those schools that don't stand to benefit from the new structure did not want to lose their relationships with the power conferences and desired to protect competitions like the NCAA basketball tournament.
"We understand the level at which we compete and we understand the resources we must manage," Wright State president David Hopkins said. "From our point of view in the Horizon League, we think this is so important that we stay together in Division I."
If 75 schools from outside the Power Five vote to override the autonomy legislation in the next 60 days, the measures would be sent back to the board of directors for further consideration. But Hatch, who has spoken with nearly every conference and school leader throughout this process, said he was "very confident that it will not be overridden."
Some conference commissioners and others from the Power Five had made veiled threats about splitting off into a separate division if autonomy failed. This should quiet that talk.
"There was certainly some saber-rattling out there," Kansas State president Kirk Schulz said. "But I think this puts us in a good spot to make changes a lot of folks have been asking for."
It's no coincidence that several of the new rules being proposed under autonomy involve giving athletes more benefits. The NCAA faces attack from several quarters, including the Ed O'Bannon lawsuit, the Northwestern union movement and even Congressional investigations, all of which pose an existential threat to the way college sports are run.
"I think we have to look at why are those things coming up, and sometimes you have to go back to the root causes," Schulz said. "You look at some of the opportunities here to enhance student-athlete benefits and things like that, and I think it will help mitigate some of the legal [issues], but not all."
A new 80-member voting panel, which will include 15 current players, will determine autonomous policies for the five leagues. The power conferences will also carry more voting power on general NCAA matters. Athletic directors will have a much larger representation than before, when presidents mostly controlled the system. Rice's Leebron called the new governance structure a "shift of responsibility" and a "huge vote of confidence" in the athletic directors and players.
Major conferences will still have to agree on issues; to pass a rule requires either a 60 percent majority of the 80-member panel plus three of the five power conferences or a simple majority plus four of the five leagues.
South Carolina president Harris Pastides said he'd like to see new rules limiting contact in football practice and lessening practice hours in all sports. But he's not sure all his colleagues will always see eye-to-eye.
"I think that's where the rubber meets the road, quite frankly," he said. "I can't wait to be part of those deliberations. It won't be easy to reach agreement on everything."
But the most powerful schools in Division I now have a chance to figure things out for themselves and potentially give more back to their players. That's why Emmert called it "a big, important day."
"In the end, everyone recognized this was something very good for Division I," he said. "From my point of view, this is a wonderful development."