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The Debate over Stipends for Student Athletes

Guest author: Mit Winter

Division I student-athletes are currently only allowed to receive financial aid based on athletics ability up to the value of their tuition and fees, room and board, and required course-related books.  In October of 2011, the NCAA Board of Directors approved a proposal to allow Division I members to give student-athletes a stipend of up to $2000 on top of the items listed above.  The idea is that the money will help cover the difference between the value of a full athletic scholarship and the actual cost of attending college.  As anyone who has attended college knows, students have everyday expenses that go beyond their tuition and fees, room and board, and books.  Things like laundry, transportation, toothpaste, and clothes (and cheap beer – my preference in college was Natty Light). An athletics scholarship is not allowed to cover these expenses.

But, the stipend proposal was tabled in January after more than 160 schools requested an override. These schools argued that the proposal was too expensive for them, that it would give the wealthier schools another advantage in recruiting, and that it equals “pay for play.”  Despite this opposition, the Board of Directors recently reiterated its support for the stipend proposal.

The activity summarized above brings up two areas of discussion.  1) The proposal itself, and 2) the opposition to the proposal.

First, let’s address the proposal.  While it moves things in the right direction, it doesn’t go far enough.  Here’s why:  non-student-athletes can receive merit based scholarships that cover their full cost of attendance.  As one example, the Charles Scholarship at Davidson College includes the recipients’ room and board, tuition and fees, books, a travel allowance that covers three round trip flights to Chicago (it’s a scholarship specifically for students from Chicago), a personal expense allowance, and special study opportunity funds.  Why shouldn’t student-athletes be able to receive scholarships that cover all of these expenses?

One of the usual arguments is that providing student-athletes with athletics-based money for personal expenses equals “pay for play.”  How can that argument be reconciled with the fact that schools are already providing non-athletes with merit-based money for personal and travel expenses?  It can’t be.  When a trombone player receives a full cost of attendance scholarship no one calls that pay for play.  No one complains that Davidson is paying the Charles Scholarship recipients to study.

Another argument that has been made against athletics-based cost of attendance scholarships is that schools will artificially inflate the cost of attendance figures for athletes.  But, federal regulations and NCAA bylaws already prevent this from happening.  Federal regulations only allow certain categories of expenses to be included in the cost of attendance calculation.  And NCAA bylaws mandate that the cost of attendance for student-athletes must be calculated in accordance with the cost of attendance policies and procedures for general students.

Those who argue against athletics-based cost of attendance scholarships also overlook their potential to address a big issue in college sports: third party influence.  It is well-known that agents, runners, and other third parties looking to gain influence with student-athletes often offer them money or other gifts.  Take the recent case ofKansasState’s Jamar Samuels.  Samuels was suspended the day that K-State played Syracuse in this year’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament.  His crime was accepting $200 from his former AAU coach.  Samuels allegedly needed the money for food.  The suspension forced Samuels to miss the last game of his college career.  Samuels likely would not have needed the money if he had received a full cost of attendance scholarship.

There are probably hundreds, if not thousands, of transactions like this occurring every year between third-parties and student-athletes.  Taking money from third parties is very tempting to those student-athletes whose families do not have the means to provide them with money for personal expenses.  Full cost of attendance scholarships won’t end third-party influence, but they will help.

Now, let’s go back to the stipend proposal.  The schools opposed to the proposal are generally the Division I members outside of the BCS conferences.  These schools mainly argue that they cannot afford to pay the stipends and, as a result, the schools with wealthier athletic departments will have yet another recruiting advantage.  While the argument does have some merit, the non-BCS schools are making this a bigger issue than it is.

The reason: non-BCS schools are not currently winning recruiting battles with BCS schools.  Even the worst BCS schools usually win in head to head recruiting battles with non-BCS schools.  The BCS schools already have many other recruiting advantages that are more significant than any advantage that would be gained by offering a $2,000 stipend.  Things like history and tradition, media exposure, fan support, facilities, and schedules filled with games against the traditional college basketball and football powers.

A good way to look at this is to assume that the non-BCS schools are the only schools allowed to offer the stipend.  How many student-athletes currently attending a BCS school would have gone to a non-BCS school instead?  Probably not many.  Would Matt Barkley have gone to Fresno State instead of USC?  No.  WouldOklahoma’s third string running back have gone to UTEP?  Not likely.  Would Kansas’ back-up point guard, Naadir Tharpe, have gone to Boston University(near his hometown)?  Negative.

Another thing to keep in mind in this debate is that the stipend proposal is not a novel idea.  NCAA members were allowed to give student-athletes $15 a month for personal expenses until the early 1970’s.  The stipend was eliminated in an attempt to trim the costs of running an athletic department.  But, the enormous media rights contracts that Division I conferences are signing and will sign (I’m looking at you football playoff), will bring in more athletics-based revenue to Division I schools than at any time in the past.  With this new money rolling in, schools should have the option of sharing some of that money with the student-athletes who play a large part in generating it.  The stipend proposal is a good start.  Once the Division I members give the proposal a try they will hopefully continue on to the logical end place:  the ability to award athletic-based cost of attendance scholarships.



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