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Threat of 'Division 4' is Mike Slive's way to get more out of NCAA autonomy

Think of the SEC commissioner's comments as a negotiating tactic along the way to rule changes, not a sign of an actual NCAA breakup.

Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

The NCAA's autonomy proposal is back in the news. The consensus is nobody really has any idea what's going on. At the SEC's annual meetings, Florida president Bernie Machen is "pessimistic" the proposal will pass, while conference commissioner Mike Slive is "optimistic."

That's par for the course with college sports. Everyone argues, nobody can get anything done, and everyone just gives up. Out of fear that will continue to happen, Mike Slive decided to drop an ultimatum:

Of course, this isn't the first time a major conference commissioner has threatened to bring his school to a new division. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany did it last year. To be clear, a Division IV isn't likely to happen unless nothing changes with the NCAA, and even then it might not happen. A Division IV would mean the five power conferences (Slive's, Delany's, and the ACC, Big 12, and Pac-12) pulling out of the NCAA entirely — the NCAA isn't just going to let them form their own division — and if Machen's comments are any indication, nobody really wants to do that.

Slive's comments are really just a reminder to everyone else that if they still want some support from the richest among them, they're going to need to give the powers what they want. In other words: "You better give us autonomy, because if we want to, we can create our own autonomy."

In this case, what Slive wants seems trivial, but could make the difference between technical change and actual change. Rather than the proposed  majority threshold (43 power schools) and approval from four of the five power conferences to pass legislation, Slive wants the threshold to be only 60 percent (39 schools) and three of the five conferences. That's a difference of just four schools, and it might seem ridiculous, but Slive has been in the meetings, and he apparently feels it's enough to make a difference:

Slive, Delany, and their fellow major-conference commissioners really do want change. They might not want the end of amateurism — which, really, is out of their hands now — but they don't want to be held back by the smaller schools. But they have to do it right, or else nothing is really going to change.

This is the problem with the NCAA's autonomy proposal. As groundbreaking as it might seem, autonomy is not really autonomy. Even among the 65 power-conference schools, there might still be too big of a divide between the rich and the poor. Josephine Potuto, a professor of law at Nebraska and the former chair of the NCAA Division I Committee on Infractions, wrote this when the NCAA's proposal came out:

(The NCAA) proposes a supermajority vote to adopt policy or bylaws ( of all voters and a vote in favor of 4 of the 5 conferences). That makes it difficult, if not impossible, to get much of real substance done. And if we do? The CEOs from the 5 Conferences on the DI Board can vote a bylaw down if it has an undue impact on competitive equity for everyone else. Competitive equity for schools with lesser resources always translates into limits on what can be done to benefit student-athletes.

The NCAA and its member schools place far too much importance on competitive equity, because it really doesn't exist right now. But the poorer schools in the power conferences that are currently not competitive will veto certain rules for the sake of competitive balance — even though nothing would change if those rules were passed. Alabama would still be Alabama, and Iowa State would still be Iowa State.

Would a four-school threshold change really make a difference? Who knows. But Slive believes that's the only way real change can be accomplished, he'll do whatever he has to in order to make it happen. That includes dropping ultimatums to scare the smaller schools into letting him have his way.