Allen Gordon has accomplished plenty in his life to this point and he’s not yet out of college.
The senior Ole Miss long jumper is an All-American. He was a finalist for the U.S. Olympic Trials, and his shirtless dancing moves on TikTok have turned into nearly 1 million followers.
On Friday, he scratched off another achievement: He made history.
Gordon was the first Ole Miss athlete to pick up a $2,990 check that the school is disbursing to its players.
It is believed to be the first such payment as part of the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling granting schools the right to provide athletes additional financial support for academic achievements, up to a maximum of $5,980 per year. Ole Miss, the first known school to start cutting such checks, is splitting the distribution into two payments—one in the spring and one in the fall.
Gordon was able to receive the payment because he was academically eligible — Ole Miss athletes who met those academic requirements the previous semester and who are on an active roster (walk-ons included) meet the criteria for this academic bonus.
“Everybody is going to do this, for sure everybody in the SEC,” says Ole Miss athletic director Keith Carter. “We thought, ‘Let’s get ahead of this.’”
Gordon and the Rebels were first, but they will not be the last.
Dozens of schools around the country are also finalizing plans to begin distributing such checks to their athletes, some with stricter eligibility criteria. Just be eligible. The ACC, SEC, Pac-12 and Big 12 have all announced they plan to allow their schools the right to determine how to handle the NCAA vs. Alston ruling —a 9–0 Supreme Court decision in June that opened the door to these payments while rocking the governing body of college athletics and further cratering its amateurism model.
The high court’s ruling makes it possible for programs to offer an assortment of educational-related benefits, including unlimited graduate school, vocational and study abroad scholarships, paid internships, computers and equipment, and tutoring. And, of course, up to $5,980 in cash for “academic awards,” says Jeffrey Kessler, the victorious attorney in the Alston case.
The Rebels will spend $2.48 million a year in the additional payments for roughly 415 athletes, Carter says. This year, the payments are being funded through football season-ticket sales. With coach Lane Kiffin guiding the 12th-ranked Rebels to an 8–2 start, the university has generated more on ticket sales than expected and will use the excess revenue to fund the additional financial support to athletes. In the future, the school will include the payments as an annual budget line item.
Academic awards: ~$2.5M.
At Ole Miss, academic bonus checks will be cut each Oct. 15 and March 15, Carter says.
“These are life changing for some student athletes,” Kessler told SI in an interview this past summer. “Every school in the Power 5 should quickly offer these benefits.”
It took more than four months, but it happened.
Carter says his team has been examining the issue since the summer. He described it as a tricky endeavor with “multiple layers,” involving the school’s Bursar’s Office, the state higher education system and even the federal government.
Not every Ole Miss athlete will get a check. The payments to athletes who are on federal student loans will go directly toward paying off their loan, Carter says.
This will apply more to athletes who are on partial scholarships, as well as walk-ons. Those on full athletic scholarships normally don’t need student loans. The NCAA’s scholarship structure is split into two groups: (1) the “headcount sports” provide full scholarships, such as football, basketball and softball; and (2) “equivalency sports” are allowed a set number of scholarships to be split over a larger roster size, such as baseball, which gets 11.7 scholarships for 27 players.
These academic payments are seen as a significant recruiting advantage in equivalency sports—an extra financial incentive for an athlete and his family. For instance, a full Ole Miss scholarship for an in-state athlete is worth about $25,000 when factoring in tuition, fees, books, boarding and other expenses, according to the university’s website. A baseball player on a 25% scholarship (roughly $6,500) who received the nearly $6,000 in academic bonus payments would, essentially, have half of his scholarship covered. Only 25% of that would count against the team’s athletic scholarship allotment.
The payments will also be an advantage in the recruitment of walk-on players at every sport, including football, where recruiting battles over walk-ons, though somewhat unreported, do unfold.
The Alston-related payments are in addition to the cost-of-attendance payments athletes receive. In 2015, the Power 5 conferences passed a rule to allow scholarships to include the full cost of attendance, which includes food, housing, travel etc. Schools determine monthly stipend amounts through a cost-of-living formula, producing a range that usually is between $500-$2,000 a month.
So why has it taken schools so long to begin enacting the Alston academic payments? It is a complicated and murky situation, administrators say. Many school officials are taking a wait-and-see approach because they are unsure of how the additional academic payments impact a full scholarship.
The U.S. Department of Education cast more doubt on the subject in an exchange last month with ACC officials. SI obtained documents of the exchange, where Deputy Under Secretary Jordan Matsudaira informed the league that these academic bonuses are considered, like cost of attendance, part of an athlete’s “financial aid package.” Matsudaira wrote to officials that the academic payments are also taxable and must be reported on a FAFSA form. However, the payments will not impact an athlete’s Pell Grant money, Matsudaira wrote to administrators.
Because the payments are considered part of the full aid package, some administrators are interpreting the situation differently, believing athletes who are receiving a full scholarship and their full cost-of-attendance stipend are not eligible to earn any more compensation, including from the Alston case’s ruling.
Carter says his team vetted all scenarios.
“There were issues with cost of attendance playing into this,” Carter says, “but because it’s academic, we can award it.”
Athletes at Ole Miss can earn the academic bonus by (1) being enrolled; (2) being on an active roster; (3) retaining eligibility the previous semester; and (4) taking part in the school’s life skills program called REBS.
The low academic threshold was expected and even predicted by many, including Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby.
“It could be as simple as staying eligible,” he told SI over the summer. “Every kid is going to get it. Whatever the lowest common dominator is, that’s what it’s going to be.
“It’s going to be a bitter pill for a lot of schools. They can’t afford it,” he said. “I’d guess way more than half of Division I won’t even try to afford it. That will affect where things go.”
All schools won’t follow Ole Miss’s lead. Some, like Iowa State, are planning to deposit the payments into a trust to be disbursed to athletes once they graduate—an incentive to obtaining a degree but also one that might put the program at a recruiting disadvantage. Other programs are debating whether to distribute only a portion of the money immediately.
Some schools are exploring ways to create more stringent criteria, such as a tiered approach based on an athlete’s GPA.
“Coaches are all going to want the (Ole Miss) model,” says one Power 5 administrator, “but you’ve got to find the money somewhere.”
Conferences and schools must determine a model on their own. An NCAA-wide policy could be seen as colluding, bringing on more antitrust issues and legal challenges, experts say.
There is concern among some that schools will go beyond the cash payments. The Alston ruling allows for any extra benefit tied to education.
“You can promise to send a young man or woman to a Wall Street firm for an internship that pays them a million dollars. Hey, it’s based on their education,” says Len Elmore, a former ESPN broadcaster, attorney and member of the Knight Commission, a longstanding independent group that promotes reforms that support the educational mission of college sports.
“If the school does that, will the player sign with them? You can see what I’m saying. Education benefits are not inherently bad. But based on the lack of institutional integrity we’ve seen, it makes this vulnerable to exploitation.”
What exactly is an educationally tethered expense? That’s a question Bowlsby asks himself. Is it a foreign internship? A vehicle to commute to class?
“There will be lots of things like the Miami (NIL) deal where people think that’s the right thing to do,” Bowlsby said in July. “Someone could say, ‘We’ve got $20,000 of educational expenses. We’ve got a big campus and we think a scooter is something we need to have!’”
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