NCAA Cedes Power to Conferences, Divisions With Vote to Change Charter

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Under threat from the nation’s highest court, subverted by dozens of state legislatures, and increasingly loathed by the American public, NCAA members voted Thursday for the association to relinquish its role as the omnipotent rule-maker of college sports.

The 801-195 vote—seen, for months, as a foregone conclusion—closes the book on a nearly half-century epoch, during which the Indianapolis-based organization served as central command for intercollegiate athletics, from Division III to Division I. Moving forward, those separate divisions, and maybe even individual conferences, will have more power to set rules for athlete benefits, academic standards, enforcement and more.

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The vote comes at a time when college athletes have gained newfound financial rights—principally, to earn endorsement money while playing—which the NCAA had long tried to stop, or at least stall. Even now, the governing body’s enforcement arm is scrutinizing a number of schools, including Oregon, BYU, and Miami, over the NIL money their athletes are receiving.

With the new constitution, the NCAA is effectively giving up on its long-held belief that it could create a coherent framework of rules to govern both UT-Austin (athletics budget: $174 million) and Division III’s Austin College ($2 million). Those imbalances have always existed but have grown even wider over the past few decades, as college sports grew into a multi-billion-dollar enterprise.

The NCAA will continue to oversee its intellectual property, serve as liaison to the U.S. Olympic team and conduct national championships. It will also remain in charge of negotiating media rights deals for those championships, including the lucrative March Madness television deal with Turner and CBS that accounts for the vast majority of its roughly $1.1 billion in annual revenue.

In his annual “State of College Sports” speech at the NCAA convention in Indianapolis, NCAA president Mark Emmert invoked the nation’s original Revolution, saying the new charter ratified Thursday was more like the the Declaration of Independence than the U.S. Constitution. Emmert, who appeared remotely on account of COVID-19 protocols, suggested that the change in course allowed for “a fresh 21st century version of college sports,” unencumbered by “the baggage of the previous decades.”

In the discussion before the vote, held right after Emmert finished speaking, representatives from a number of lower-division schools expressed displeasure with the new constitution, particularly around revenue sharing. Since 1996, the NCAA has shared 4.37% of its operating revenue with Division II and 3.18% with Division III, and those portions won't change under the new accord.

Betsy Mitchell, the athletic director at D-III Caltech, complained that the process leading up to the vote had been "highly-scripted" and full of "strong-arming." In one of the day's most memorable lines, Mitchell argued that the NCAA's new declaration wasn't nearly independent enough: "Why are we still trying to stick together?"

Thursday’s vote could be a more drastic version of a change that started at the NCAA convention back in 2015, when the governing body granted the five richest conferences the power to make some of their own rules, particularly in what they offer athletes. Those five leagues—the Big Ten, Big 12, SEC, ACC and Pac-12—immediately voted to grant athletes stipends to meet the full cost of attendance, to guarantee more four-year scholarships, and to clarify rules around insurance for future pros. (Some of those changes have since been adopted more broadly).

The new changes will kick in as the Power 5 conferences partake in their most recent game of musical chairs. Texas and Oklahoma, two of the richest and most popular NCAA brands, are leaving the Big 12 for the SEC in the coming years, part of a wider series of conference realignments that appears to be consolidating power in the SEC and Big Ten.