For years, the Southeastern Conference has played by its own rules.
Now the SEC wants to make it official.
This week at its annual spring meeting, SEC higher-ups will discuss the evolving NCAA structure where a handful of conferences — the SEC prominent among them — will move to their own strata and establish a large degree of autonomy.
The SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, ACC and Pac-12 will continue to be members of the NCAA, but they'll operate under a separate umbrella with their own set of rules and regulations. In short, they'll develop their own way of doing sports business.
It makes sense on many levels. The strongest athletics programs with the biggest budgets want to do some things other schools can't or won't. One such matter is covering the so-called "cost of attendance" for scholarship athletes, supplying stipends that will cover things beyond room, board and books.
For now, automobiles will not be part of the deal.
Last week, SEC Commissioner Mike Slive told reporters it is important "that autonomy really means autonomy, that the five conferences can determine how their own legislative process will work."
The NCAA board of directors is scheduled to vote on restructuring in August. Approval is expected.
While the SEC and other major conferences are pushing for independence as "an effort to create autonomy in these areas that are related to student-athletes," according to Slive, let's not pretend it begins and ends with stipends and health care issues. That's a starting point, not the finished product.
Once the five major conferences plus Notre Dame form their Gang Of 65, the genie is out of the bottle. They can chart their own course on a number of issues. It's merely a matter of how far they want to distance themselves from the rest of Division I.
For those keeping score, there are 349 schools in Division I. But once restructuring is approved, 65 of them will be operating on a different plane than the other 284.
I know what you're thinking: The schools in the biggest conferences already are markedly different from the others in terms of budgets, TV exposure and many other things. And you're right. The NCAA long has been a collection of Haves and Have Nots.
Until now, this has been a situation where the biggest programs were separate but equal — separate because of budgets and exposure but equal when it came to voting on rules. That will change with restructuring.
How far with the power elite push things? If history is any indicator, they'll push to get whatever they want. Today, it's full cost of attendance. Tomorrow? It could be a new world order for college athletics.
Let's face it: The top college programs have their own agenda. One way or another, they'll pass it. If not, they'll bolt the NCAA and form their own imperfect union.
With such power comes responsibility. And I'm not sure those in control understand this. At some point, the biggest of the big will need to police themselves. And it's a big job.
Except for the over-the-top punishment of Penn State in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, the NCAA committee on infractions appears to have gone on an extended sabbatical.
Since the Penn State ruling (it's a criminal and civil case, not a rules violation, so the NCAA should not have piled on) and the botching of the University of Miami investigation, the NCAA enforcement process has lost its teeth. There has not been a hearing on a case involving a major athletics program in the past seven months, with none on the horizon.
Instead, the NCAA Infractions Committee's recent docket has included cases like extra benefits for women's basketball players at the University of Alaska Anchorage and recruiting inducements for swimmers at the College of Staten Island.
Maybe this means those in college sports' power elite have gotten religion and suddenly are playing by the letter of the NCAA law. Or maybe it means the NCAA investigation staff is averting its eyes. You make the call.
Moving forward, this is something college sports' rich and powerful must confront. As they make their own rules, they'll have to figure out a way to enforce them.