Much has been made in the past few weeks about the possible ripple effect of increasing the amount of money student athletes get in scholarships to help cover their cost of living.
Sure, the AQ conferences could probably afford to give out more because of lucrative TV contracts. But what about the non-AQs? Where do athletic directors stand on this issue, and would implementing a policy change continue to grow the gap between the haves and have nots?
Predictably, this is a touchy subject. Several athletic directors I reached out to declined to comment for the story. The ones that did agreed they were all in favor of helping student-athletes. But none would be able to afford increasing scholarship amounts at their already cash-strapped institutions -- unless they got an infusion of money into their budgets.
"Where you stand on the issue depends on where you sit," FAU athletic director Craig Angelos said. "If you’re sitting in a conference that has a large television contract and extra money to assist with the student-athlete welfare issues, everyone would agree that’s a good thing for student-athlete welfare. If you’re in a conference that struggles to make ends meet, you agree with the idea conceptually but then the question becomes how are you going to fund that extra money across the board? It’s no different than a lot of the issues we face with the AQs and the non-AQs and that is trying to keep up."
At many non-AQ schools, the athletic department relies heavily on student fees. Forty percent of the FAU athletics budget is derived from those fees, so adding $300,000 to the budget to cover increased scholarship dollars to football and men's and women's basketball players is a lot to ask. What about the other sports? What about Title IX issues?
The NCAA does have a fund available to students in need, where they can request extra money. Needy student-athletes also are eligible for Pell Grants up to $5,000. So if NCAA member institutions agree to increase scholarship dollars and FAU cannot afford the increase, it can direct its student-athletes to other means to get extra money.
As Angelos pointed out, there already are disparities between the haves and have-nots: stadium sizes, revenue streams, budget sizes fan bases, conference affiliations. He is unconvinced that a few thousand extra dollars in scholarships will be a make or break decisive factor for student-athletes.
"I don’t think it’s going to be a driving force on whether they come to our school versus another school," Angelos said. "I think it’s more what it currently is, the quality of the program, going to bowl games, conference affiliation. That is more of a driving factor for prospective student-athletes than whether they can get $3,000 more from one school to another.
"If you are needy, you have some of the NCAA student-athletes funds to draw from and also Pell Grant, so if they come to FAU and are needy we say we’ll give you a full scholarship, you can live in Boca Raton, you can also get a $5,000 Pell Grant and you’ll be fine."
What about the contention that this could end up leading toward a split of the haves and have nots? Western Kentucky athletic director Ross Bjork acknowledges that is a worry, but believes the current FBS model works well.
"We all need each other so a distinct divide would be hard to implement," Bjork said. "I don’t think the NCAA would want to see that happen. Where does that membership go if there are 70 schools that break apart, how are they governed? How are they scheduling for those left with the NCAA model? To me, that’s a slippery slope and it’s fearful for programs like us because how would that work?"
One thing that has been lost in this discussion is this: big-time TV money does help, but there are still only a handful of football programs that make money. That includes the AQ conferences. Florida might be able to afford to spend extra money on scholarships, but could Mississippi State? Bjork worked at UCLA as a senior associate athletic director before he took the job at Western Kentucky last year. While he was there, this was a topic of discussion with athletic director Dan Guerrero.
Perhaps the new Pac-12 TV deal changes the equation, but Bjork said there was real concern at UCLA about whether the school could afford to do this. Northern Illinois athletic director Jeff Compher noted that scholarship amounts continue to rise, regardless of whether new NCAA legislation will be adopted, because tuition rates are increasing at 7 to 9 percent a year at his school.
Compher says there needs to be more discussion at a conference level about whether this is something that is feasible.
"TV money has changed things. That’s the barometer," he said. "As a conference, we don’t have that money to compete with the automatic qualifying conferences. I’d like to look at it and see what all the conferences are doing, just to see what everyone else could or could not do."