In the last several weeks, the commissioners of the Big Ten and the Southeastern Conferences, two leagues with pockets sagging beneath the weight of newfound television riches, have advocated providing more money to their scholarship athletes.
The impetus may be the guilt of the rich getting richer. It may be smart politics, quieting the grumbles of current and former players who see schools raking in greater amounts of income from the sweat of the athletic brow. It may be athletic geopolitics, the Trojan Horse for the BCS conferences that, tired of being constrained by the noble but quixotic goal of a level playing field, want to break away.
It may be -- brace yourself -- the right thing to do.
Whatever the reason, the idea of expanding the athletic scholarship to cover "the full cost of attendance" has gained the endorsement of two of the most powerful officials in intercollegiate athletics.
Neither Jim Delany of the Big Ten nor Mike Slive of the SEC is advocating "paying players."
"If you want to pay athletes, I think the system falls of its own weight," Delany said at the Intercollegiate Athletic Forum last December. "We provide opportunities for 10,000 young men and young women. We're not going down that road. If you want to go that road, it's an NFL situation . It's arena football. It's not college football."
Repeat after Delany: "The full cost of attendance" is not paying players. As Syracuse associate athletic director Jamie Mullin explained, "It is about providing them with additional athletically related scholarship dollars."
Warning: You are about to go down the road of NCAAspeak. Have your translation guides in hand. Any attempt to explain the difference between an NCAA "grant-in-aid" and "the full cost of attendance" can grind to a halt amid the ruts and potholes of stilted language.
The "full cost of attendance" is bureaucratic jargon. It includes tuition, fees, room, board, books, personal expenses and travel home. The idea dates to the Great Society, President Lyndon B. Johnson's expansion of domestic programs in the mid-1960s, and to the establishment of the Pell Grant in 1972. It came to life in federal regulations. Congress wrote it into law for campus-based aid in 1986.
Those dates are important because paying for the full cost of attendance didn't occur until long after the NCAA members began awarding athletic scholarships.
In 1956, the membership approved a model to cover "commonly accepted educational expenses" that included tuition, room, board, books, fees and a stipend of $15 per month for the nine-month academic calendar. That stipend came as close to covering personal expenses as the NCAA cared to tread.
The stipend turned out to be an uncharacteristic, and lone, gesture of generosity. The NCAA members never adjusted the laundry money for inflation. In the early 1970s, when the cost of living had reached half again what it had been in 1956 (thank you, American Institute of Economic Research), the NCAA eliminated what was still a $15 monthly stipend. Suffice it to say that athletic departments are stingier than the feds.
The NCAA membership has never come close to adopting the full cost of attendance, not when Congress wrote it into law in 1986, not when late NCAA president Myles Brand advocated for it in 2003, and not now.
"It is important to note," Mullin said, "that NCAA rules currently permit a student-athlete to receive non-athletically related financial aid up to the cost of attendance. There are several student-athletes at Syracuse University that are already receiving financial aid up to the cost of attendance."
Non-athletically related financial aid may be based, for instance, on merit or on need, such as a Pell Grant for students who qualify based on financial need. But that is where the NCAA has drawn the line, which remarkably enough, looks a lot like a sideline or a foul line. This rule, like many in the NCAA Manual, has its historical roots in an attempt to level the playing field. That is why the rules for Ohio State, with its nine-figure athletic budget, are the same as the rules for Ohio University.
If it is the concept of a level playing field, however ethereal or intangible that concept is, is that the right foundation? Or should the foundation be what's in the best interest of the student-athlete? That's where I move to full cost of attendance, as an example. If you think about the foundation being a level playing field, then the definition of a scholarship makes total sense. If you think about what's in the best interest of the student-athlete, immediately you move to full cost of attendance.
”-- SEC commissioner Mike Slive
"If it is the concept of a level playing field, however ethereal or intangible that concept is, is that the right foundation?" Slive asked. "Or should the foundation be what's in the best interest of the student-athlete? That's where I move to full cost of attendance, as an example. If you think about the foundation being a level playing field, then the definition of a scholarship makes total sense. If you think about what's in the best interest of the student-athlete, immediately you move to full cost of attendance."
The Ohios of the world won't be able to pay the full cost of attendance. Even officials at bigger schools that soon will be awash in television cash are wary.
"We have the equivalent of 330 full scholarships, so that would be our 'nut,'" Stanford senior associate athletic director Earl Koberlein said. (Stanford has 845 student-athletes. In non-revenue sports, scholarships may be divided among several recipients). At $3,000 per scholarship, Stanford is looking at an additional $1 million annually.
No sweat, right? The Pac-12 just signed a media deal that will provide more than $20 million per member school for 12 years. Koberlein winced. He is concerned that Stanford boosters who learn of the windfall will stop donating money to the athletic department.
"Every year, with tuition going up 3.5 percent, it's a million dollars toward our budget," Koberlein said. "And if salaries go up 3 percent, that's another million dollars."
That is the bill-paying administrator talking. Koberlein, a former Cardinal basketball player, said he has no philosophical issue with the full cost of attendance. In fact, few athletic officials have spoken out against the full cost of attendance on anything but financial grounds. The increased costs have been the highest roadblock to adopting the full cost of attendance. The NCAA may have to be reconfigured in order to allow the schools that can afford to provide more aid to their student-athletes to do so.
"The onion will have to be peeled back to consider the different layers and the potential unintended consequences," Mullin said. He pointed out that every school calculates its own cost of attendance. Those variances could lead to recruiting advantages and disadvantages.
(See level playing field, above.)
The full cost of attendance is an accepted benefit on the academic side of campus. It carries neither the taint of professional sports nor the legal implications of income. What has become apparent in the current debate over the adoption of the full cost of attendance by Division I is that the propriety of paying more money to student-athletes isn't being questioned. It has become a financial argument. In that regard, the benefit has crossed a threshold of acceptance in the athletic world that is taken for granted in the current discussion.
Matt Mitten, the director of the National Sports Law Institute at Marquette University Law School, doesn't believe that the ticket-buying, donation-making public cares about it, either. He believes that it's quite possible that paying student-athletes the full cost of attendance could help an athletic program achieve its mission.
"I doubt certainly the student-athlete's cost of attendance will diminish the strong, fanatical support and interest in college sports," Mitten said. "In fact, it might increase it, because a number of these kids might hopefully stay in school longer and more likely might earn their degree."
Delany told ESPN last month that he doesn't believe the NCAA will pass legislation allowing members to pay the full cost of attendance. But the ground beneath the debate has shifted. Money has a way of changing things.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.