By Eric Kelsey
(Reuters) - Student-athletes in the United States may move a step closer to receiving financial compensation, when a group of university leaders on Thursday are expected to allow the wealthiest collegiate sports programs to leave behind decades-old restrictions and chart a self-governing course.
The embattled National Collegiate Athletic Association's Division I Board of Directors is scheduled to vote in Indianapolis, as it faces legal and public pressure to share its billions in revenue with athletes.
The vast majority of student-athletes never go on to play professionally, and critics say the NCAA's current scholarship policy short-changes athletes who risk injury and devote many hours to practice, travel and competition.
For the new structure to pass, it must get a majority of yes votes from the NCAA's 18 directors, which comprise college presidents and chancellors. That would give the top five athletic conferences autonomy to shape their own rules and possibly ease regulations on agents, recruiting and pay.
The NCAA, which does not allow students to earn money for their athletic performance, has been sued by former and current athletes in U.S. court demanding a share of profits that includes tens of billions in guaranteed television money.
This year, it settled cases along with video game maker Electronic Arts for using the likenesses of current and former football and men's basketball players in video games.
The NCAA also faces a unionization push by scholarship football players at Northwestern University who want the right to have a say in benefits and compensation.
'VOICE IN THE PROCESS'
Thursday's vote on restructuring rules is likely to greatly affect football, basketball, men's ice hockey and baseball, according to the NCAA.
"It shows a clear commitment to support student-athletes and allow them not only a place at the table but a voice in the process," NCAA president Mark Emmert said in a statement last month, in an endorsement of the reform.
One of the first items set to be voted on would institute a "cost of attendance" scholarship and other guarantees that would cover living costs for student-athletes that are not currently offered.
Other items to be considered are insurance policies that would protect future earnings and financial assistance for families traveling to sporting events.
Under the proposed regulations, the student-athletes would have a say on new rules along with the 65 universities that comprise the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big 10, Big 12, Pac-12 and Southeastern Conference.
If approved, the new structure could only be challenged if at least 75 Division I schools request the board to reconsider.
Critics of granting autonomy to the biggest athletic schools say the new structure would create a further divide between the richest athletic departments and smaller-revenue universities, possibly leading to cutting sports programs.
Big-time athletic departments like the University of Texas, University of Michigan, University of Florida and University of Oregon often bring in more than $100 million in annual revenue through ticket sales, merchandising agreements and media rights.
The NCAA divides its schools between three divisions, with Division I split into two sub-categories for football.