Sports

Paying stipends to college athletes remains a divisive issue

Atlantic Coast Conference Commissioner John Swofford makes remarks during the ACC NCAA college football kickoff in Pinehurst, N.C., Monday, July 20, 2015. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Gerry Broome/AP

ACC commissioner John Swofford says of the stipend system, “It’s not perfect but I think it’s the right thing to do in today’s world.”

America’s point guards were famished while their schools were raking in millions.

“There are hungry nights that I go to bed starving,” said former University of Connecticut star Shabazz Napier.

Advertisement

That narrative and several lawsuits pushed the National Collegiate Athletic Association to offer additional compensation for athletes beyond their scholarships.

So the NCAA voted this year to give the “Power 5” conferences — the Southeastern Conference, Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten, Big 12, and Pacific-12 — and their 65 members the prerogative of paying thousands of dollars to athletes annually to cover the full cost of attending school.

Get Sports Headlines in your inbox:
The Globe's most recent sports headlines delivered to your inbox every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

The move to autonomy is arguably the most revolutionary change since the NCAA was founded in 1906, and it isn’t limited to the big-time programs. The other three dozen Division 1 conferences, which include approximately 285 schools, have the same option, whether they can afford the stipends or not.

“The answer to the problem is not throwing money at it,” said Michael Bowen, steering committee chairman of the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics. “It will make the problem worse over time. We hope that the solution won’t drag everybody into bankruptcy.”

In the Power 5 firmament, the cost-of-attendance move was inevitable, its athletics officials say.

Advertisement

“It’s not perfect but I think it’s the right thing to do in today’s world,” said ACC commissioner John Swofford. “It has some warts, but sometimes if it’s the right thing to do, you have to move ahead, warts and all.”

Yet many other schools, from those without football programs to those without athletic scholarships to those who play in multiple divisions and conferences, are having to deal with autonomy that they didn’t request and that they probably can’t afford.

“Those 65 schools are not typical of what’s going on in college athletics,” said Northeastern athletic director Peter Roby. “What we’re really talking about is football and men’s basketball. That 65 is a very small percentage of the overall.”

Opponents of the cost-of-attendance stipends say they will exacerbate existing imbalances not only between the Power 5 and the other leagues but also within conferences and within athletic departments.

“What was always a concern is, what are the unintended consequences of the legislation?” said Roby.

Those consequences, critics predict, will include rising expenses for all students, a substantial recruiting edge for public colleges that can pay higher amounts, the dropping of more non-revenue sports by cash-strapped schools, and the further segregation of athletes from other students.

“It’s a commercial road that’s going to be ruinous to college athletics as we know it,” said University of Vermont president Tom Sullivan, who says the Power 5 represent a “classic antitrust cartel.”

Calculating the difference

As it is, most Division 1 programs already operate in the red, even without paying stipends that will run into seven figures. The NCAA reported that only 20 Football Bowl Subdivision (i.e. big-time) programs turned a profit in 2013.

“The rest of us are all being subsidized by our universities,” said Boston College athletic director Brad Bates, whose institution was the only Power 5 member to vote against autonomy. “And yet we keep passing legislation that keeps increasing our costs.”

The stipend, which is based on a federal formula used for all students and is calculated by each college (ranging from $5,666 to $1,400 among the Power 5), is meant to make up the difference between a traditional scholarship that includes tuition, room, board, books, and fees, and the full cost of attending college.

The extra cash can be used for a variety of expenses ranging from transportation between home and campus, postseason travel for friends and family, summer pre-enrollment costs for recruits, computers and cell phones, and injury insurance.

While each conference may decide whether or not to pay the stipends, most are letting their members choose for themselves.

“Because the legislation is permissive, there are some schools that are doing it, others that will wait and see, and others that are adamantly opposed to it,” said Roby, whose school is not paying the stipends.

BC, like the other 14 ACC members, will be issuing checks to all of its scholarship athletes. Most of the other Division 1 institutions in New England, at least for now, will not be.

“We don’t feel any urgency to rush into things,” said Boston University athletic director Drew Marrochello.

For need-based colleges such as the Ivies, the legislation essentially is irrelevant.

“Our philosophy has been that financial aid covers the full cost of attendance, and we have been doing that for a long, long time,” says Harvard AD Bob Scalise, who directs the largest Division 1 program (42 varsity sports) in the country.

For the scholarship schools that make up the overwhelming majority of Division 1 programs, making up the cost gap will be an expensive proposition, especially for those in mid-major conferences such as Conference USA, the Mid-American Conference, and Mountain West.

“We can do that for a couple of years,” University of Central Florida football coach George O’Leary reckoned at the American Athletic Conference’s media day last month. “We obviously can’t sustain. When you are not getting a $35 million check, it’s hard to have that cost of attendance and keep up with everything.”

Multitude of repercussions

The decision to offer the cost-of-attendance option to all conferences was seen as a means of providing equity and also sidestepping antitrust lawsuits.

“Ultimately, everyone doesn’t have the same resources,” said Sullivan. “De facto, it can’t happen. It’s going to drive the costs for the universities up, and the costs will have to be paid.”

At a time when the majority of college students graduate with tens of thousands of dollars of debt, giving additional four-figure stipends to athletes can be difficult for administrators to justify.

“A full grant-in-aid in athletics is the best deal on campus,” said University of New Hampshire AD Marty Scarano.

While the Ohio States and Alabamas easily can fund the stipends out of operating funds or tap well-heeled booster groups, second-tier programs likely will have to find the cash elsewhere or tighten their belts, which may mean dropping non-revenue sports, most of which, like swimming and track and field, develop the athletes that have kept the US atop the Olympic medal table for two decades.

“The fear is the repercussions,” said Bowen, whose coalition represents the FBS faculty senates. “That there’ll be loss of sports and loss of participation.”

Athletic departments that aren’t getting fat cuts from conference TV revenues, from major bowl games, and from full 100,000-seat stadia may choose to give stipends to some sports and not others.

“It’s a very divisive initiative,” said Scarano, “and it’s divisive within an athletic department.”

Since Title IX requires gender equity, women’s teams have to receive the same payouts as the men’s. That would make the stipends significantly more expensive for colleges with football programs than for those without. That will be an issue for Hockey East, which has two Power 5 schools in BC and Notre Dame, five others that play in three different divisions, and five that don’t play football.

“We’re all over the place,” said Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna, who says that half of the league’s schools are giving stipends and the other half either will not or haven’t decided, mirroring the national hockey landscape.

For schools in wait-and-see mode, the tipping factor likely will be whether they can stay competitive in the recruiting chase. UNH, whose football team reached the FCS semifinals the last two seasons and whose hockey varsity is a frequent NCAA qualifier, isn’t giving stipends but makes sure that its athletes’ needs are seen to.

“There aren’t kids walking around in tennis shoes in winter,” said Scarano. “We give kids what they need, not what they want.”

If the Wildcats start losing prospects to their paying Hockey East rivals, though, they may have to offer stipends.

“We have to make sure we don’t fall behind,” Scarano says.

Unbalanced playing field

Given the disparities in stipends, there’s already a fear that the SEC and Big 12, who have 14 schools among the top 20 most generous for full cost-of-attendance, will win even more recruiting battles.

“In a perfect world, we’d have the same numbers across the board,” said Swofford, whose ACC has only three members in the top 20 and four in the bottom eight.

The stipend differences within conferences are stark, even for schools from the same state. Tennessee pays $5,666, Vanderbilt $2,780. California offers $3,552, Southern Cal $1,580.

“The cost-of-attendance formula is ambiguous enough that people can manipulate it,” said Bates, “and you’re starting to see that that’s playing out.”

While cash payments obviously will be an attractive inducement, they’re likely to be only one reason why a recruit chooses one program over another.

“I’m still not sure what drives an athlete to pick a school,” said BC hockey coach Jerry York, who also worked at Bowling Green and Clarkson. “There are so many variables. I think that [a stipend] will be a factor. I don’t know if it will be a deciding factor.”

The traditional strength of a program, quality of facilities and coaching, the school’s academic reputation, and the attractiveness of the campus all play a part in a recruit’s decision.

“The Holy Cross degree is a pretty special one, and it puts us in a strong position in the conversation,” said AD Nathan Pine, whose college is not offering stipends.

Academic oomph is a selling point for private schools in the Power 5, which generally offer significantly lower stipends than do state schools.

“A Boston College degree is a quarter-million-dollar education,” said Bates. “It’s an unbelievable opportunity for students.”

The question is whether the cachet of the BCs, Notre Dames, and Georgia Techs will offset the thousands of dollars more that the Louisvilles, Florida States, and Clemsons can offer.

“You can argue that the value of a degree varies between schools, but when you’re talking about cash, that’s a different tangible item to a 17- or 18-year old,” said Bates.

Louisville pays $5,202, FSU $3,884, and Clemson $3,608 according to figures from the Chronicle of Higher Education. By contrast, Notre Dame pays $1,950, Georgia Tech $1,720, and BC $1,400, the lowest of the 65.

“Unfortunately, it’s not going to be a balanced playing field,” said Syracuse football coach Scott Shafer, whose school pays $1,632, the third-lowest among the Power 5. “There’s nothing we can do about that right now. You live in the now, you live with the reality of what is.”

Range of costs

The top 10 and bottom 10 stipends among the 65 schools in the “Power 5” conferences (Southeastern Conference, Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten, Big 12, and Pacific-12):

TOP 10

1. Tennessee $5,666

2. Auburn $5,586

3. Louisville $5,202

4. Mississippi State $5,126

5. Texas Tech $5,100

6. Penn State $4,788

7. Texas Christian $4,700

8. Oklahoma $4,614

9. Oklahoma State $4,560

10. Mississippi $4,500

BOTTOM 10

56. Minnesota $2,194

57. West Virginia $1,971

58. Notre Dame $1,950

59. Iowa $1,938

60. Michigan State $1,872

61. Purdue $1,760

62. Georgia Tech $1,720

63. Syracuse $1,632

64. Southern California $1,580

65. Boston College $1,400

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.
Loading comments...
Real journalists. Real journalism. Subscribe to The Boston Globe today.