Let's get one thing straight: Despite the headlines you've read in the past two days, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany didn't suggest on Wednesday that his conference is looking into paying athletes a salary. At least not the kind of salary you're probably thinking. Delany suggested that the Big Ten will look into providing scholarships that cover the athlete's actual cost of attendance, and that it will discuss the possibility with other conferences.
That alone is a big deal. And it raises the question: Why now?
Actual cost of attendance scholarships have been a hot-button issue in college athletics for years. Late NCAA president Myles Brand was a vocal advocate of the increased scholarships. The NCAA spent millions in 2008 to settle a lawsuit over this very issue. It's no secret that the full cost of attending a university typically is a few thousand dollars more a year than the amount schools can give under the NCAA's athletic grant-in-aid formula. That means athletes who are told they'll receive a "full ride" often find themselves having to fork over money they might not have. Other students could easily cover those costs by getting jobs, but scholarship athletes already have full-time jobs on top of their course load.
So don't expect athletes to start pulling five- and six-figure paychecks. That's not what this is about. It's about making sure they can afford to buy pens and toothbrushes and the occasional off-campus meal. It's about making sure they can pay all their medical bills or insurance co-pays, because sometimes schools don't cover everything even in the event of a sports-related injury. Individually, no athlete will get rich if this plan gets approved by the schools in the FBS or all of Division I.
It sounds as if the other conferences are willing to join the Big Ten in exploring the possibility. The commissioners of the ACC, Big 12, SEC, Pac-12, Conference USA and MAC all said Thursday that the issue requires serious consideration.
The scholarship shortfall has required serious consideration for years. So why are the conferences doing something about it now?
Some will say that this will deter athletes from taking money from agents or boosters. It won't. Anytime there is a multibillion-dollar business in which employees are all paid the same salary, a black market will thrive. The easiest answer is that schools simply have more money to spend. The SEC, ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 recently inked massive new media rights deals, and the Big Ten Network has made that conference quite wealthy. This year was the first for the new NCAA men's basketball tournament rights deal, which brings in about $770 million a year -- most of which gets distributed to the schools. It could be that athletic directors and conference commissioners feel the athletes deserve a sliver of that pie. They'd be correct.
"The schools in the NCAA have coined the term 'full scholarship.' It's very deceptive," said Ramogi Huma, the president of the National Collegiate Players Association. "It's finally time for them to actually provide a full scholarship."
Huma has fought for full cost of attendance scholarships since his days as a football player at UCLA in the late '90s. He provided a deposition to help the plaintiffs in White v. the NCAA, which the NCAA settled by making millions more available to athletes in need through a special fund. Huma's organization also helped push the Student-Athletes Right to Know Act through the California legislature. In 2012, every school in California will have to disclose to recruits the difference between an athletic scholarship and the actual cost of attendance figure each school provides to the federal government. Huma said Connecticut is considering a similar law, and he hopes other states will join. (Consider the recruiting ramifications of this. If I have offers from School A and School B, and both have similar academic and athletic pedigrees, equally big stadiums and play in the same conference, I'm picking the school that costs me less out of pocket.)
Huma believes the conferences' recent windfalls can help offset the longtime scholarship shortfall. "Look at the new money coming in," he said.
In the end, this comes down to money -- or rather who has it and who doesn't. That's where things get interesting. The NCAA's grant-in-aid formula exists to ensure fairness, but it's also a cost-saving measure.
Schools in certain conferences (the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Big East, Pac-12 and SEC) would have little trouble providing a full cost of attendance scholarship to every athlete with a full, head-count scholarship. And it would be every one. Even though football and men's basketball pay for every other sport at most schools, giving bigger scholarship checks to only those players would inspire the mother of all class-action Title IX lawsuits. Lawyers probably would stage an arm-wrestling tournament to decide who gets to represent the class. Raising everyone's scholarship wouldn't be a problem for the power conferences, though. If Michigan's annual athletic scholarship expenditure rose from $15.5 million to $17.5 million, administrators could tweak a few other budget items and sail along.
The problem will come in the lower reaches of the FBS. In the Sun Belt and the WAC, the need to spend an additional million or two could cripple an athletic department. Most of those athletic departments rely heavily on taxpayer dollars or fat student fees to survive; if they start asking for more, their universities may decide athletics at that level aren't worth the trouble. One such school, Louisiana-Monroe, may already have reached its financial breaking point. In April, ULM students voted down a proposed $10-per-credit-hour athletics fee.
Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, speaking to reporters at the Big Ten meetings this week, offered a simple solution for schools who can't afford to pay additional scholarship money. "The reality is, if there's cost of attendance and you can't afford it, don't do it," Smith said. "The teams you're trying to beat can't do it either. Don't do it because Ohio State's doing it. That's one of the things schools at that level get trapped into thinking."
That may sound cold, but Smith is 100 percent correct. An inability to pay by some schools should not keep the schools that can pay from treating athletes more fairly. But it does raise a competitive issue. If certain schools can offer a more complete scholarship than others, they'll have a distinct recruiting advantage. Of course, membership in a BCS AQ conference already is a distinct recruiting advantage, so would a change make that big of a difference to most recruits?
But because of that advantage and because of the uneven distribution of revenues to conferences in the BCS, it seems unlikely that the power schools will approve actual cost of attendance scholarships given the current climate. The BCS is about to be sued by Utah attorney general Mark Shurtleff in federal court on antitrust grounds. The U.S. Department of Justice is still deciding whether it will join Shurtleff. It wouldn't be wise to drive a larger competitive wedge -- a wedge that could be funded by the imbalance in the BCS payouts -- into a division in which all 120 school are allegedly on the same level.
Of course, we know they aren't on the same level. Maybe this issue is DOJ insurance for the power conferences. If the DOJ does join the case, the monetary cost and the potential for embarrassment during the discovery phase might make the BCS too expensive to defend. If they abandon the BCS, the power conferences need a way to ensure they still control the postseason and the revenue from it. The FBS underclass would want a full-scale playoff run by the NCAA with a revenue distribution model similar to the men's basketball tournament. No one in the power conferences wants that.
But if the power conferences can make it too expensive for the underclass to compete -- and do so using a student-athlete welfare issue, no less -- then maybe they can create an FBS schism that allows them to maintain control. That wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing. Many schools in the underclass waste millions in public money trying to compete with schools that could essentially print their own. Why continue the charade that these programs are peers in anything other than NCAA division?
Hopefully, the conferences have decided to ponder a more fair scholarship because their athletes have brought them a windfall and deserve to share in the largesse. But if there are more political reasons behind the move, that doesn't make the need for actual cost of attendance scholarships any less valid. No matter the motives of Delany and his fellow power-conference commissioners, they're doing the right thing.