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Creating new tier for big-money college sports is just a start, NCAA president says

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LAS VEGAS >> A day after NCAA President Charlie Baker made an aggressive and potentially groundbreaking pitch to allow some schools to pay their athletes, his proposal was met with praise, caution and questions from around college sports.

“I think Charlie has indicated his intent for that to begin a discussion,” Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey said today during an appearance at the Sports Business Journal’s Intercollegiate Athletic Forum. “There’s certainly a lot of content included from which to begin a discussion.”

On Tuesday, Baker laid forth an aggressive and potentially groundbreaking vision for a new NCAA subdivision at the very top of college sports in a letter he sent to the more than 350 Division I schools.

Baker said his proposal to allow the most highly resourced schools in Division I to pay athletes through a trust fund is just a starting point as he tries to shift the association to be more proactive than reactive.

“We need to be able to anticipate where conversations are going and to try to get this big, huge, diverse 180-committee with 2,000 members — like oh, my God! — to a place where they’re talking about stuff that’s common, and not just responding and reacting to other people’s agendas,” Baker said during his 30-minute session at the forum.

Baker’s proposal would require schools that want to be a part of a new tier of D-I to commit to paying their athletes tens of thousands of dollars per year on top of athletic scholarships.

He also suggested all Division I schools should bring name, image and likeness compensation for their athletes in-house through group licensing and remove limits on educational benefits schools can provide for athletes.

“Some people are going to say you’re going too far and people will say but you’re not going far enough,” Baker said. “I promise you that’s going to be where most of the dialogue on this will be in the short term.”

Big 12 Commissioner Brett Yormark called Baker’s proposal “directionally correct.”

“We hired Charlie to lead and he’s leading,” Yormark said.

Baker said the proposal was formed from an amalgamation of conversations he has had with administrators and athletes from across college sports.

Sankey noted he did not see Baker’s letter until it went out Tuesday.

Sankey said any attempt to reform college sports will be addressed in five arenas: the courts, Congress, state legislatures, conferences and the NCAA.

“All of those have to be part of the solution,” Sankey said.

Baker said he believes about 100 schools might consider opting into a new subdivision.

There are 133 schools in Division 1 football’s highest tier, the Football Bowl Subdivision. Baker’s proposal seems targeted at about half those schools that compete in the five power conferences. That number of conferences is shrinking to four after recent realignment moves go into effect next year, but it will still encompass about 65 schools.

College sports leaders, including Baker, have been lobbying lawmakers in Washington for a federal law that will create a national standard for NIL compensation, exempt athletes from gaining employee status and, more broadly, allow the NCAA to govern college sports without the threat of constant legal and political challenges.

“Whatever plan emerges, will have to incorporate, probably, some college athletes as employees,” said Mit Winter, a sports and entertainment attorney based in Kanas City, Missouri.

The NCAA is moving toward passing its own detailed NIL rules in January. No matter what the association does, Baker said, it still will need federal protection.

Baylor President Linda Livingstone said college sports leaders need to show lawmakers they have a plan to direct more of the billions of dollars that flow into major college athletics, mostly toward major college football and basketball, toward athletes.

“If Congress sees us saying ‘hey, we want to benefit them more financially, but we believe keeping them from being employees helps us to support them in different ways and maybe better ways,’ I think we might be able to get some of that protection that probably we won’t get otherwise,” Livingstone said.

Atlantic Coast Conference Commissioner Jim Phillips said Baker needs now to gather support from various constituencies, from university presidents to athletic directors to coaches.

“It’s not going to please everybody and maybe some (schools) can and can’t do certain things,” Phillips said. “So it’s important now to get a reaction from the missive that Charlie sent.”

Baker said differences in budget sizes across Division I have traditionally caused conflicts in the NCAA. He wants schools that have the ability to spend more on their athletes to be free do so.

The concern among some in college sports is that allowing the wealthiest schools to wield that power will create insurmountable competitive advantages.

“Recognizing that we’re trying to be supportive as to a big tent approach but, as you saw yesterday with Charlie’s memo, there’s a new reality here,” Sankey said.

Amy Perko, CEO of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, said she wonders whether schools within the power conferences will be compelled to have fewer teams so they can direct more money to revenue generating sports.

“You don’t want to create an incentive for those to drop sports,” she said.

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