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The Summit League, Autonomy and Cost of Attendance

The Summit League could be in for some relatively big changes in the next year.  Not in membership, but in governance and the possibility of added benefits for student-athletes who are already on full athletic scholarship.

This past August, the NCAA Division I Board of Directors voted to allow the schools in five athletic conferences to govern themselves and write many of their own rules. 

They are known as The Big Five and include the Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 12, ACC and SEC… and what the NCAA has granted them is “autonomy”.

Autonomy allows those conferences to decide for themselves on things such as extra payments for athletes and insurance benefits for players.

This has created some concern in leagues like the Summit League that those power programs would take advantage and create an even bigger competitive and financial gap between “them” and “us”.

But Summit League commissioner Tom Douple says that so far that his league and other mid-major conferences have made an effort to ensure that the Big Five don’t overrun the rest of Division One.

“We set out some goals as a subgroup, as an FCS Division One group that we put to the Big 5 and over the course of time negotiated, and we think we accomplished all of our goals," Douple says.  "You know, it is like anything, we will see how it all shakes out.  There will be some permissive legislation that the Big 5 may introduce that maybe some of our members want to partake in, and we will see what that is in the future.”

One example of “permissive legislation” is the idea to pay student-athletes to bridge the gap in what has become known as “full cost of attendance”.

In general, an athletic scholarship covers tuition and books and meals and room and board.

“But beyond that,” Douple says, “you have incidental expenses like your laundry and other hidden expenses that you have and that is the cost of attendance.  Each school has their own formula to reach their cost of attendance. In our league it can be anywhere from $1,500 above a full scholarship up to $3,000.  And what they (the Big Five) want to do is be able to offer that to the student-athletes.”

The Big Five have already made this proposal.  It will have to be approved at the NCAA convention in January.

If it does come to a point where Summit League schools would pay full cost of attendance, Douple says it would not be a league mandate, but would be up to each member school in the league to decide whether they have the funds available and whether they want to do it or not.

So cost of attendance will be one of the biggest possible changes to keep an eye on.  But back to those other goals and accomplishments the commissioner was talking about.

In all of the talks and meetings in the last year, Douple and his peers in other mid-level D1 leagues wanted to make sure that they maintained three things.

The first was Automatic Qualification.

“We want to make sure,” Douple says, “that the winner of the volleyball tournament, softball, soccer, baseball and basketball tournaments got the automatic qualification into the regionals.  We accomplished that.”

Next up was maintaining Revenue Distribution.  In other words, making sure that money from the NCAA is spread out among all leagues and schools, not just the Big Five.

90 percent of this money comes from the TV contract for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament and each year the Summit League office and each Summit League school get a piece.

“For our members that can go anywhere from $500,000 to a million dollars per school in revenue distribution,” says Douple.  “That is based on the number of sports you sponsor and the grant in aids involved.  So there is a formula they distribute all the revenue from.  That was very important for us.  There is an academic enhancement part where each school gets a certain amount of money for academic enhancement for the student athletes.”

The third thing Douple and his mid-major group wanted was representation and to at least have a voice and some influence in the decisions made by the NCAA that affect all leagues at all levels.  He says they got that, as well.

He also says that a lot of the talk surrounding the Big Five and autonomy is mostly related to football and many of the new rules written will have no effect on the Summit League.

And remember when there was talk this year that the Big Five wanted to split from the NCAA and form their own organization?

Douple says that was never really a viable option.

“That was talked about, but more so in the media than the actual nuts and bolts of it because it would be tough to do with the basketball tournament.  I think some of the excitement of the basketball tournament are the upsets that leagues like ours bring to that tournament.  So when you got down to the logistics of something like that it was best that everybody stayed under the NCAA brand.”

Still, could the Big Five take their ball and their money and go home at some point?  Go off and do their own thing and leave the rest of Division One to fend for themselves?  Sure, it could happen.

But Douple doesn't think so.  He has been an administrator at Big 5 school.  He was an assistant AD at LSU, and he can see the Power Conference point of view.  But he also wants to make sure that they can see the Summit League point of view in return.

“They bring in millions to the NCAA and they have a lot of issues that aren’t our issues and I understand that,” he says.  “I never felt we were pushed around.  You get in a room and there was some angst among a lot of our commissioners, but in the long run I think it is healthy that everybody gets to say their point of view and come to and understanding and move forward.”