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INDIANAPOLIS -- The NCAA could soon allow individual conferences to decide for themselves whether they want to pay athletes more and award them longer scholarship terms.
Demand for such proposals came out of the first day of an NCAA presidential retreat on reform Tuesday. NCAA chief Mark Emmert said the group is operating with "an extreme sense of urgency" and would like to vote on new rule proposals as early as October and no later than January.
"We're talking about a matter of months and weeks, not years," Emmert said. "We have challenges that we have to get on top of."
If the rules pass, each Division I conference would have the option to award bigger, longer scholarships to athletes. That would represent a sea change from previous NCAA philosophy, in which all schools in the same division were supposed to play by the same rules and policies.
Emmert said questions still need to be answered about potentially "huge implications for competitive equity and not having people game that system." But he said that a level playing field in college sports is already a myth.
"We have athletic departments with $5 million total budgets and schools with $145 million total budgets," he said. "Schools have huge variations right now in terms of things they can provide for student-athletes, like training facilities, game-day environment and all of that. So most people think that a change in that basic scholarship structure wouldn't have much of an impact on competitive equity, but it's something we want to watch."
Cost of attendance has become a buzz word in recent months in college sports, as studies have shown that current scholarships on average fall about $3,000 short of the real-world expenses a student-athlete incurs per year. SEC commissioner Mike Slive proposed this summer that schools should award four-year scholarships to recruits instead of the current, one-year renewable grants.
Commissioners from the BCS AQ conferences, many of which are flush with money from lucrative new TV deals, have supported these reforms. It's clear, however, that not all schools in Division I could afford the added costs. Simply accounting for the full cost of attendance for every athlete on campus could add more than $1 million a year to an athletic department's expense sheet at a time when most programs are operating in the red.
"Traditionally, we've done sort of a one-size-fits-all approach, and I think for many schools it's not possible to do a lot more," said Ed Ray, Oregon State president and chairman of the NCAA executive committee. "There are some things that maybe we all need to do and some things where there could maybe be some differential treatment."
Major ideas like these usually crawl through the NCAA legislative process. But Ray said the goal is to present these proposals for an up-or-down vote when the board of directors meets in either October or January.
"There's a strong appetite ... to find ways that allow us to be more flexible," Emmert said. "All of our one-size-fits-all rules don't really work when you've got schools as different as a small liberal arts college and a great big state university."
Emmert said there's "very deep interest" from some conferences for full cost of attendance scholarships and a "general sympathy" for four-year grants. But he said there was "absolute, complete consensus" against paying athletes.
"No one believes that's even remotely appropriate in the collegiate model," he said.
The presidents also discussed ways to rein in costs, but Emmert said there wasn't much talk about escalating coaches' salaries. The marketplace dictates those salaries, he said.
More than 50 university presidents from across Division I, as well as a handful of athletic directors, conference commissioners and other officials, met for nearly five hours on the first day of the retreat. They focused on financial resources on Tuesday and will tackle issues like rule-breaking and academic standards on Wednesday.
Brian Bennett covers Big Ten and Notre Dame football for ESPN.com.