Athletes at the highest level of college sports could receive money for personal expenses as part of their scholarship packages if a trial balloon floated by the Big Ten becomes reality.
The idea of offering additional funding to cover an NCAA Division I athlete’s full cost of attendance — the money above and beyond just what’s paid to the university — has been a long time coming, advocates for student-athlete welfare say.
But still to be answered is how a plan could be implemented without inviting abuses, whether schools could come up with the extra funding and comply with Title IX and whether it would create a greater divide between the haves and have-nots in college athletics.
NCAA President Mark Emmert and commissioners of the six BCS conferences have said increasing the value of an athletic scholarship merits study. NCAA spokesman Erik Christianson said no conference or school could offer the beefed-up scholarships independently. A change in Division I bylaws would be required, he said, and no formal proposal has been submitted.
"The devil is going to be in the details," Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner John Swofford said.
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany brought up the issue at his league’s recent spring meetings, and it will be addressed again when Emmert hosts 50 Division I presidents and chancellors and other athletic administrators during an August retreat. Commissioners for other BCS conference said their leagues will talk about it as well.
A formal proposal for NCAA membership consideration could still be three to four years out, said Chad Hawley, Big Ten associate commissioner for compliance.
"We were just trying to get a conversation started," Hawley said, "and I think we succeeded."
Athletic scholarships currently cover tuition, fees, room, board and books. Not covered are transportation, clothing, laundry, entertainment and incidentals.
Proponents of the enhanced athletic scholarships point out that some academic scholarships cover full cost of attendance and that athletes deserve the same, especially in light of the money and exposure they bring to their schools.
The idea isn’t new — athletes received $15 a month in "laundry money" until 1972 — but Swofford said it has come to the forefront recently because coaches’ salaries have skyrocketed and the NCAA and conferences have negotiated huge television contracts. Add in a couple of years of scandal, with USC getting penalized and Ohio State under investigation for improper benefits to football players, and the urgency of the conversation has turned up a notch.
One of the biggest questions is just how much extra money should be tacked on to a scholarship package?
Under federal financial-aid guidelines, each institution is required to estimate full cost of attendance. The numbers are wide ranging. For example, Indiana University figures a nonresident student needs $4,044 to cover his or her costs after tuition, fees, room and board are paid. At Arkansas, the estimate is $2,128.
Conference commissioners and athletic directors will have to decide whether to use a uniform dollar amount or whether to allow the amount estimated by each school. The rub is that if School A would provides more money for discretionary spending than School B, School A could have a recruiting advantage.
The ACC’s Swofford said there also will be a debate about who should be entitled to the extra money.
"I know some would like to look at it in terms of revenue-producing sports and athletes that participate in those sports only," he said. "Whether it could be addressed in that way, I don’t know."
The argument that football and men’s basketball players are the ones who should receive extra money because their sports are the ones that produce the most revenue won’t stand up in court, said Minneapolis-based attorney Rayla Allison. She specializes in issues involving Title IX, the federal law that bans sex discrimination in schools.
"If they only implement it with the gender that’s favored — men — they’re setting themselves up for liability," Allison said. "I don’t think any administrator would want to do that."
So far, the discussion has focused on athletes in the so-called head-count sports. Those sports require athletes on scholarship to receive a 100-percent grant-in-aid.
There are a combined 98 scholarships in the men’s head-count sports — football and basketball. There are 47 on the women’s side — basketball, gymnastics, tennis and volleyball.
Hawley said if each of those 145 scholarships were funded equally, the gender-equity standard would be met.
What about athletes in the so-called "equivalency" sports, where partial scholarships can be awarded?
If $3,000 were established as the amount necessary to cover the full cost of attendance, would an athlete on a 50-percent scholarship be entitled to $1,500?
Probably yes, according to Hawley, as long as the athlete’s school chooses to fund his or her sport to the maximum allowable.
Not to be forgotten, Hawley said, is that Delany’s proposal doesn’t make full-cost-of-attendance scholarships mandatory. Schools that have the means to offer them can do so. Schools that don’t won’t.
For those 145 full scholarships in the head-count sports — and using $3,000 as the per-athlete figure — it would cost an athletic department an extra $435,000 to pay them.
That figure would be considerably less, of course, at schools that don’t field football teams.
One of those schools is mid-major Creighton in Omaha, Neb. Its athletic director, Bruce Rasmussen, said he’s against increasing the size of scholarships. NCAA rules allow qualifying athletes to receive need-based aid, and low-income student-athletes can receive up to $5,500 in federal Pell Grant money. Athletes also have the option to work in the summer and even during the school year.
"Kids aren’t as hard up as they’d like you to believe they are," Rasmussen said.
No one expects the enhanced scholarships to serve as a barrier between athletes and agents who offer goodies to athletes who promise to become clients.
"It’s somewhat foolish to think that increasing the value of a scholarship is going to change the actions of people doing things in a dishonest way," Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long said. "We’re still going to have boosters ... that may work outside the lines regardless.
"For me, I think the discussion should center around the needs of the student-athlete and if indeed there are resources available to increase those scholarships."
Ernie Chambers of Omaha, a former Nebraska state senator who since the 1970s has advocated for paying college athletes, said he’s excited about the prospect of increasing the value of scholarships.
Chambers drew national headlines in 2003 when he sponsored a bill, eventually signed into law, that requires the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to pay its athletes an unspecified amount if the legislatures in four others states with institutions in Nebraska’s conference pass the same law.
Chambers said his law is symbolic, and he never expected it to be activated because of conflicts with NCAA rules. He said he’s heartened that Delany and others agree with his premise that athletes deserve something extra.
"It has not been proposed by someone in this guy’s position before," he said. "The thought is the father to the deed. Once discussion is under way, it will become reality."