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NCAA lets top athletic conferences create own rules

College athletes in the United States may be a step closer to receiving greater financial compensation after a group of university leaders voted on Thursday to let the richest athletic conferences have autonomy on several key issues.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Division I board of directors approved the measure that would let the five biggest conferences self-govern in areas such as scholarships, insurance and travel for athletes’ families.

The so-called power five conferences - the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big 10, Big 12, Pac-12 and Southeastern Conference - and the NCAA have faced legal and public pressure to share its billions in revenue with its amateur athletes.

“The new governance model represents a compromise on all sides that will better serve our members and, most importantly, our student-athletes,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said in a statement.

Student-athletes would also get a voice in how rules are created under the new self-governing structure, but they would not have enough votes to hold up legislation.

The new structure addresses the decades-old struggle between the richest conferences and the rest of the NCAA member schools over revenue generated in particular by football and men’s basketball, said Ellen Staurowsky, a sports management professor at Drexel University.

“One would expect that economic engine is just going to continue to roll,” Staurowsky said about the gap between the power conferences and other colleges.

The NCAA, which does not allow students to earn money for their athletic performance, has been sued by former and current athletes in U.S. court seeking a share of profits.

The association grosses roughly $770 million per year in media rights for its annual Division I men’s basketball tournament, known as March Madness, which are then shared with member schools.

The richest conferences, however, generate billions of dollars each year exclusively for themselves through media contracts and their own cable TV networks, primarily on the popularity of football and men’s basketball.

They are expected to consider easing regulations on agents, recruiting and instituting a “cost of attendance” scholarship and other guarantees that would help cover living costs for athletes that are not currently offered.

The majority of college athletes do not go on to play professionally and critics say the NCAA’s current scholarship policy short-changes athletes who risk injury and devote many hours to practice sessions, travel and competition.

Many NCAA practices date back to a time when college athletics were not the multibillion-dollar business they are today. At the same time, students have become more vocal about the shortcomings of the system as they see it.

For example, a football player who comes to college on a scholarship can lose financial support if he suffers a career-ending injury while playing for the school.

Scholarship football players at Northwestern University in the Chicago suburbs have been among the most active in pushing for a say in benefits and compensation and are fighting for the right to unionize.