The NCAA on Thursday cleared the way for schools in the major conferences, including Cal and Stanford, to enact reform measures to benefit athletes in all sports, but particularly football and men's basketball.

The newfound autonomy will give the Pac-12, SEC, Big Ten, Big 12 and ACC greater competitive advantages over leagues such as the Mountain West, of which San Jose State is a member.

The so-called Power Five leagues (and Notre Dame) can now move forward with plans to use the windfall from their massive television contracts to:

  • Guarantee scholarships for four years (currently, they are for one year).

  • Increase medical coverage for athletes, a key component to the unionization movement at Northwestern.

  • Adjust recruiting rules.

  • Loosen restrictions on contact with agents.

  • Increase financial aid to cover the true cost of attending college, which is greater than the dollar value of a traditional scholarship.

    "We are delighted that after years of debate, a consensus has emerged that the time has come for a modern approach that recognizes the need to give more flexibility to those conferences prepared to do more for student-athletes,'' Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said in a statement.

    Not everyone thinks the changes are for the better.


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    "It's going to be great for those five conferences, and that's about it," Gerald Gurney, president of The Drake Group, an NCAA watchdog, told The Associated Press. "I don't think it's going to be a good step for nonrevenue sports or for Title IX. We are going to get into a new phase of competition, and there will be no holds barred."

    The NCAA's board of directors granted autonomy to the five major conferences after their commissioners, frustrated that smaller schools had the power to override reform efforts, threatened to form a separate division within college sports.

    Whether they would have made good on the threat is uncertain and, as of Thursday, irrelevant: Their tack had the desired effect.

    Under the newly approved plan, the major conferences will hold twice as much voting power as any other bloc on a council charged with approving or rejecting legislation.

    The new rules could be enacted as early as next year and will surely increase the chasm that now exists between the heavyweights and the second-tier leagues.

    Cal and Stanford, for example, collect an average of $21 million annually through the Pac-12's deal with ESPN and FOX.

    San Jose State received $600,000 in TV money last year from the Mountain West.

    How will leagues such as the Mountain West respond to the changing landscape?

    Commissioner Craig Thompson said last month that the decision to provide athletes additional aid will be made on a school-by-school basis.

    San Jose State estimates the difference between an athletic scholarship and the true cost of attendance is $6,000 per athlete. That means an additional $1.4 million would be needed annually to compensate all student athletes.

    For SJSU and dozens of its peers in the second-tier leagues, decision time is fast approaching.

    For more on college sports, see Jon Wilner's College Hotline at blogs.mercurynews.com/collegesports. Contact him at jwilner@mercurynews.com or 408-920-5716.