On August 7, the NCAA Division I Board of Directors voted to adopt a new governance structure for the top tier of college athletics. Unless at least 75 of the Division I members request an override vote within the next two months, which appears unlikely, the NCAA will begin the transition to the new structure in October. The NCAA expects to complete the reforms by April 2016.

So What Are These Reforms?

The NCAA is a ridiculously complicated bureaucracy, and it’s unclear whether the new structure will make things better or worse. The most high-profile change is what the NCAA calls “autonomy” for the SEC and its major-conference partners in the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12. The 65 schools in these five conferences will now have the authority to legislate on a number of issues related to student-athlete benefits without requiring consent from the rest of Division I. 

The NCAA identified 11 major areas subject to autonomy:

1. Academic support;
2. Additional benefits related to the post-season (i.e., paying for family members to attend bowl or playoff games);
3. Allowing players to pursue non-athletic career interests without compromising eligibility;
4. Financial aid (increasing scholarships to cover “full cost of attendance”);
5. Health insurance;
6. Insurance to protect against a potential drop in NFL draft status;
7. Meals and nutrition;
8. Pre-enrollment benefits (i.e. spending on recruits’ on-campus visits);
9. Recruiting;
10. Regulating “athletic dead periods” to give players more time off; and
11. Regulating the number of “non-coaching” personnel a school may hire.

The one subject held back from autonomy, at least for now, is player transfer rules. At the behest of the SEC and others, the Division I Board of Directors will retain control over transfer issues for at least two more years.

With respect to all autonomy subjects, the 65 schools will each vote on any proposed legislation. The SEC and the other four conferences will also appoint three athletes apiece who also receive one vote. This means there will be 80 total votes. A proposal must receive the support of either 60% of the voters representing a majority of at least three conferences, or 51% of the voters representing a majority of at least four conferences. So while athletes will participate in the new legislative process, in practice even a unified athlete voting block cannot override a consensus reached by school administrators.

Still, the NCAA argues it is committed to increasing athlete participation in Division I governance. The new reforms expand the Division I Board of Directors from 18 to 20 members, adding the chair of the NCAA’s Student Athlete Advisory Committee as a voting member. A new 38-member Council, which will oversee legislation affecting all 32 Division I conferences, will have two athletes as voting members. 

Quashing the Union Movement?

Critics will argue the NCAA is making a token gesture towards expanded athlete benefits and participation in order to stifle the nascent unionization movement started by players at Northwestern University earlier this year. The National Labor Relations Board is currently considering whether to recognize football players at the Big Ten’s only private school as “employees” entitled to unionize under federal law. Even if the NLRB ultimately sides with the pro-union players—and such a decision would be tied up for years in federal appeals courts—the decision would only set a precedent for private schools, including the SEC’s Vanderbilt.

Unions therefore remain a hypothetical at this point. And the recent history of the NFL’s relationship with the NFL Players Association suggests unionized college players would not enjoy any significant role in governance—certainly no more than is contained in the new Division I reforms. And it is not even clear most athletes—even those at Northwestern, whose unionization ballots are sealed pending the NLRB’s decision—even want to form unions. Token gesture or not, the present reforms may be more than acceptable to the silent majority of college athletes who do not take their cues from labor lawyers or anti-NCAA sportswriters. 

More to the point, granting the 65 major football schools “autonomy” sends a clear signal athlete benefits will significantly increase in the near future. There would be no reason to make these governance changes otherwise. Yes, the NCAA continues to maintain its “student-athletes” are not “employees,” but that is actually a good thing for the players. Unionized workers are subject to taxation and federal regulation. Student-athletes are not. If the new governance structure means more tax-free benefits for SEC players, it’s hard to see the downside.

From a fan perspective, autonomy should also produce better football. Obviously, underclassmen may be less likely to jump to the NFL if the additional benefits make staying in school worth their while. And increasing the spending gap between the top schools and the lower ranks of the Football Bowl Subdivision will make it increasingly more difficult for SEC coaches to justify “guarantee” games against lesser opponents.