Change in the landscape of collegiate athletics over the last several years has gone from desired to inevitable to, now, finally happening. The NCAA held a conference on autonomy over the weekend, the results of which you've likely heard. The five "power" conferences have been granted exceptions and new opportunities to do things previously unallowable.
Such changes include the ability to cover what's called the full cost of attendance for student-athletes, the guaranteeing of four-year scholarships, advancements in concussion safety and a host of other sports-related items.
The news is important to Mississippi State and its athletic programs, but before breaking down the changes it will have in Starkville, it should be noted that these changes happened, in part, because of people in Starkville. MSU athletic director Scott Stricklin was a voting party as proposals were presented, as were the athletic directors from each school of each of the five conferences.
Where it gets more exclusive is the inclusion of the people these decisions would affect. 15 student-athletes, three from each conference, were selected to represent the voice of their fellow students. MSU safety Jay Hughes, who just finished his senior season, was one of those 15, chosen as one of three from the SEC.
A fifth-year student in the middle of graduate school, Hughes was an educated and experienced representative who spent a great deal of time researching, studying and preparing himself to vote on matters related to his peers and the future of collegiate athletics before arrival. The subject matter he was ready for. His experience with the NCAA, a little bit less so.
As is easy to do, Hughes had allowed a less-than-rosy perception of the NCAA to exist in his mind. It's frustrating, he acknowledged, to see the billions of dollars made across the country off of people like him, "but all we're getting after the game is a box of chicken."
After three days in Washington D.C. working with and around his governing body, his opinions changed.
"Looking from the outside in, you would think it's a bunch of uppity guys that have never played sports before," he said. "Now that I had a chance to experience it, it really seems like they are for the betterment of the student-athletes. They really care."
Hughes got to D.C. Friday, where he and the other 14 student reps met, ate and almost immediately began discussions on the issues they'd be voting on the next night, as well as speaking about in front of the full convention. Naturally, certain issues were more important to the group than others, such as concussion protocol, which Hughes said was a passion of the student-athlete group.
Some proposals, such as guaranteed four-year scholarships, were a bit more divisive. The athletic directors were heavily in favor of the seemingly pro-student item, but the student-athletes themselves were, at best, evenly split. The proposal was accepted, but Hughes was one of the students who voted against it. As it turns out, all three SEC representatives agreed on that subject.
"If you're not performing and you're not helping the team, then what is exactly is your purpose? It's harsh, but in the real world, if you're not doing your job, you're going to get fired," Hughes explained. Though he did say he understands the view of the other side, sharing that some student-athletes "thought it would be the coach's fault if a player didn't perform ... saying that by cutting a student-athlete's scholarship before they get their degrees hurts their chance to graduate and be successful in life."
Both sides have their merit, which is why so many were brought in to discuss the pros and cons.
Other topics included the possibility of an early signing day in December for high school football players, which Hughes said he likes the idea of, but thinks would put even more pressure on recruits from coaches to sign early while they're trying to focus on their senior season of high school football.
The big item on the agenda, of course, was that of the full cost of attendance scholarships. In other words: more money for the student-athletes. As you'd imagine, that was agreed on nearly universally by the S-A representation. The new ordinance will allow schools to provide for extra money beyond the usual coverage of full scholarships that had included room and board, books and the like. Now, those student-athletes will be provided with income to cover "miscellaneous expenses" as decided on by each school.
"It's a huge deal," Hughes said as he gave the example of teammates of his who, in the past, haven't had enough money to pay for gas to go home for Christmas.
"We talk about this as players all the time, but there's never anything we can really do about it," he said. "We're selling out all these football games, but all we're getting after the game is a box of chicken. This helps all student-athletes on full scholarship."
Hughes himself will never be a benefactor of any of the decisions he helped to make, but he's pleased knowing he had a hand in helping those who will come after him.
Plus, he's aiming at a future in athletic administration, and he'd love to work for the SEC if the opportunity ever arises. Spending a weekend with athletic directors, presidents and commissioners wasn't a bad way to get his foot in the door.