A major reason they lack that freedom in the first place is other NCAA members have feared widening the wealthiest programs' competitive advantage. Now NCAA President Mark Emmert and the leaders of those behemoth leagues must convince schools with fewer resources that giving them greater autonomy is in the best interest of college athletics.
"What's really hard in these kinds of things is for people to vote themselves less political authority," Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said Wednesday. "They don't do that. That's not a natural thing to do."
NCAA leaders are exploring ways to alter their governing structure, which would allow the colleges that can afford it to pay for certain expenses currently prohibited. That includes offering a stipend for the costs of attending school not covered by scholarships.
Emmert told reporters at the Intercollegiate Athletics Forum that members are "cautiously optimistic" an acceptable plan can be devised. Then again, he was confident two years ago that a Division I-wide stipend proposal would be approved. Instead, it stalled — partly because programs with less money worried it would force them to choose between unaffordable costs and falling further behind their richer rivals.
There are 340 schools in Division I, and only 120 of them are in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Just 65 will be in the five power conferences.
As commissioner of the Sun Belt, Karl Benson leads an FBS league that lacks an automatic BCS bid. He supports greater autonomy for those five as long as there's proper oversight and believes a change will come, though it won't be very dramatic.
The non-FBS conferences "have mobilized, and rightfully so," Benson said. "I think everyone wants to protect their turf and wants to protect their future."
Delany acknowledged that he and his counterparts don't have many concessions to offer the other members to entice them to approve a change that clearly bolsters those five leagues. But the tribulations that have recently roiled college sports may mean this time really is different. From the botched investigation of Miami to lawsuits seeking compensation for athletes, "we got to a tipping point last year," Delany insisted.
When critics rip universities for spending lavishly on coaching salaries and locker rooms while athletes struggle to pay for basic expenses, they're thinking of his league and the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big 12, Pacific-12 and Southeastern Conference. The time has come for those five to address such shortcomings, Delany said. He argues that the solution benefits all NCAA members.
"If we're not healthy, it doesn't help them at all," he said after appearing on a panel with his four fellow commissioners at the forum, which is sponsored by IMG and presented by SportsBusiness Daily/Global/Journal. "When we're criticized, they're implicitly criticized."
But the greatest leverage may come from what could happen if the power conferences don't get their way. While their leaders currently express support for staying in NCAA Division I, there's always the risk they could try to break away unless they gain more autonomy.
"If we can do that, I think we can stay together," Delany said. "If we can't do that, I think we have to honestly say, 'Hey, we not only have external threats, we have internal threats.' And the internal threats are that we can't find a way to use the NCAA as a town hall for us to solve our problems."
For now, Emmert said, the conversations among schools presidents have been "collegial."
"Everybody seems to understand what the high-budget schools need, and there's an increasing recognition of what the small-budget schools need," he added. "I think they're going to wind up in a pretty amicable place without anybody having to do threats or innuendos."
Conference USA Commissioner Britton Banowsky agreed that "I think you're seeing more alignment than we've had in a long, long time."
The challenge is converting support for broad ideas into votes for details. The NCAA hopes to present proposals to members at its convention next month. Emmert joked that reporters there would get to "watch the sausage being made."
"It will be like all democratic processes — clumsy," he said.
AP College Football Writer Ralph D. Russo contributed to this report.