Big 5 Conferences Breakout - What's Going On?

Campus Insiders & CFN
Posted Apr 24, 2014

What's really happening with the Big 5 leagues talking about doing their own thing?

The Big 5

What does it all mean?

By Pete Fiutak
- Check out the video talking about what all the changes mean

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So what's really happening with your college sports world? Conferences are going rogue? Players have some juice in terms of their rights and their influence? Dogs and cats living together?

As I keep saying through this entire process, Joe Q. Fan, relax. It's all going to be okay. No one's going to yuck your college football yum - at least everything will be fine as long as you're a fan of a school in a top BCS conference.

Fine, so what's going on? There are a ton of moving parts, but if this all really happens and the top leagues decide to change things up and start governing themselves, what would it mean?

Really, the Big 5 conferences – ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC - are going to take their ball and go home? What does it all mean?

First of all, no, if they decide to go through with what's being proposed, this wouldn't be a breakup or breakaway by the big leagues. This isn't a separation as much as it is a possible redefinition.

Get ready for a slew of terms over the coming days, weeks and months of the offseason – cost-of-attendance will soon be part of your daily vocabulary –and be prepared for the general sports media to take what's going on and blow it up slightly out of proportion.

To put it as simply as possible, the biggest five BCS conferences – no soup for you, American Athletic – are pouncing on the opportunity to start making more money while taking control of the operation and rules and how they apply to their leagues.

What does it mean? For you, even if everything goes forward and all the big leagues do what they're proposing at some point this summer, it won't affect your life in any measureable way – at least for right now. Honestly, if you took a nap and woke up on August 27th when Abilene Christian kicks off the season at Georgia State, you probably wouldn't notice any difference – other than that you're actually watching Abilene Christian play Georgia State. The Big Five leagues are making a move while they have the muscle, but once the ball is kicked off, it'll all look the same.

So this means the end of the NCAA, right?

If we're seeing the end of the NCAA as we know it, it won't be because of the Big 5's proposal for "governance change."

There's still going to be an NCAA basketball tournament, and for the time being, everything is going to go forward as is, especially with the lower-tier sports, but …

No, REALLY, what's going on?

Okay (deep breath, and I promise to make this as short and as simple as possible), to keep this on the football side, since that's the most pressing issue, if this all goes through, the Big 5 conferences are going to still be a part of a Division I/FBS/whatever you want to call it. They're still going to play the smaller conference schools, there will still be bowl games, and the other leagues are still going to be eligible for College Football Playoff. The rich conferences are flaunting that they have the money, they're going to get a lot more of it, and they're going to spend it to their own advantages.

Michigan gets 110,000 people a game, and Eastern Michigan is happy to get 10,000 to show up – the haves and have-nots are on totally different business levels. The disparity between the rich and the hoi polloi will only get greater, but it's not like South Alabama was threatening to steal any of Alabama's recruits.

Some of the other key parts on the table ...

- The Big 5 are proposing to be able to give players more of a stipend and more things that the other leagues and schools can't, like more coin for cost-of-living expenses, or what's being call the "cost-of-attendance." Schools in the Big 5 conferences would be able to give their players whatever they deem necessary to live, work – scratch that, wrong word in their world, since the players aren't considered employees – play, train, eat, learn, etc. in the college town that they choose. This could eventually be important, and I'll explain more in a moment.

- It's hair-splitting time. What's going on could be a fancy way of saying the schools are paying the expenses, but they're not paying the players. Pay for pizza, okay. Pay a player because he's playing football, no.

- The Big 5 will want to start taking more control over the sillier NCAA rules, and they're going to relax on certain things like allowing players to consult with agents – as long as there's no money changing hands. The phrase you're looking for is, good luck with that.

- There's talk of instituting a true offseason for the players and a strict adherence to an hour limit of time devoted to football. Again, good luck – the players themselves would certainly come up with some sort of workout policy.

- College presidents and a board of directors would be more in charge of policing things and controlling the various schools, and if that sounds like the fox in charge of the henhouse, you're probably right. However, the belief is that with some of the potential changes in how the system works, there might not be the same need to worry about the bagmen and the $100 handshakes.

- Transferring might be easier if a coach leaves. This area is a bit murky and it's begging to get tagged with problems – like a feeding frenzy if a player leaves. The other concern is the idea that a player chooses a school for its coaching staff, because, as we all know, that never happens.

- Long-term health care and better post-eligibility education. It's an interesting idea that's not really getting a lot of traction. There's a chance a player could stay on full scholarship for education if he didn't graduate on time before his football eligibility was up. While that sounds noble, to be cynical, a player could spend five years taking Intro To Basket Weaving while spending all his time working out and playing football. Then, when the NFL career isn't an option, he could go back to school for real and take care of the student part of the student-athlete experience.

So why right now?

There are a few theories. One is that this is all coming together before the Northwestern players are voting on whether or not to unionize, but that's partially wrong. While the idea of unionization is a total pain in the rear for schools to deal with – partly because if the football players can declare themselves employees, then that opens up a whole can of worms for other parts of the university to unionize and demand things – at least for now, no matter what the next step is, unionization is more of an annoyance to the schools than any real threat to the status quo.

However, this is a brilliant preemptive strike just in case the unionization thing gains any more traction.

What the Big 5 conferences are doing is everything humanly possible to not pay players or call them employees, while making it look like the players are about to get a fair shake and a piece of the pie. And here's the brilliant part.

Remember, Kain Colter and the union types don't talk about the idea of being paid. They talk about having a seat at the table, better rights, health insurance – everything but directly getting paid a salary for playing sports.

Okay, players. You want a health insurance? You want to still get a free ride on the education train after your eligibility is up? You want better working conditions? You want to transfer easier if your coach leaves? You want your say? You want all the things that you're actually asking for? No problem, here you go, AND we'll do you one better and get you a bigger stipend.

The players are about to get almost all the things they're actually asking for – so why bother unionizing? Why are a bunch of 19-year-olds going to care if they're employees or not if they're getting more than ever? It's going to be a tough sell from the PR standpoint on the union side to go back and ask for more.

One theory is that the Big 5 are trying to get one foot out of the NCAA door before the really big problems kick in. Unionization is a day at the beach compared to the concussion lawsuits, Ed O'Bannon's suit, a massive anti-trust item, and other issues on the table. While the schools and universities are a part of it all, the NCAA has the appearance of a sinking ship, and the big schools and conferences want some distance.

Helping the cause is the timing. The big, rich conferences have been wanting to do something like this for years, and now, while the NCAA is a wee bit preoccupied, it seems like an easy time to make it happen.

The big losers are … ?

The American Athletic Conference and the Mountain West on the outside, and the schools from smaller towns inside the Big 5.

Potentially, the biggest change from a fan perspective could be in the recruiting. If this all works out according to plan, schools can give players money depending on how much it costs to live, eat, etc. in that college town.

In theory – and this is one area that would have to be policed – UCLA could give its players a massive stipend to live and go to school in Westwood. It costs a lot to live in places like Palo Alto, Seattle, Chestnut Hill and Coral Gables, while you can live in State College, Fayetteville, or West Lafayette for a bag of donuts. Again, theoretically, a school like Georgia Tech could give its players more money to live in Atlanta than Washington State could to live in Pullman. Of course, the idea would be that the players would then use that money on cost-of-living expenses, but there's always a way around the system – resourceful college kids would figure out how to pocket the cash.

But the more obvious losers would be the UCFs and Boise States of the world. Most MAC and Sun Belt teams will still be getting the same players they do now, but if a recruit is trying to decide between Fresno State and a full ride scholarship, and getting a full ride scholarship along with 10K a year by playing for Utah, hello Salt Lake City.

Now about this whole unionizing thing …

I'm maintaining the same stance I've had from the beginning – it's a sexy story for the media to run with, but from a practical standpoint, if this all comes together it won't be a for a long time.

The Northwestern players will almost certainly vote no, mostly because it's too hot an item and all the issues are still confusing. There are too many variables and too many unknowns for the players to risk changing things up.

Are the players really going to want to, potentially, blow up their college football careers on a principle? I hope the players vote yes, but it's probably not going to happen. That doesn't mean the issue is dead in any way, but it'll mean the legal process will have to play itself out before any steps forward are taken. Again, if the Big 5 end up giving the union backers most of what's being asked for, that could take the steam out of the movement.

See, it's all easy.

Don't worry - Preview 2014 coming soon and then it's all about a game again.