COA would hurt cash-strapped schools

The Joneses long ago abandoned the quaint neighborhood, pulled up stakes on the starter home and relocated to a soaring McMansion in the right zip code and the right tax bracket.

And so as everyone from talking heads to college administrators debate the merits of paying college athletes and just how that might be done in a less than unseemly way, the folks where the wells don't spew money merely shake their heads.

The latest idea sounds simple enough -- offer college athletes a cost of attendance (COA) stipend, a bridge payment, if you will, between a full grant-in-aid and what it actually costs to attend college. The figure, according to most estimates, hovers around $3,000 per athlete.

It doesn't sound like much, and for a school with deep pockets, $3,000 per athlete is chump change. For schools that hover somewhere in the subterranean red, that additional $3,000 might as well be $3 million in gold bullion.

But rather than pitch a fit or rail at the injustice, there is almost a silent acceptance among the bourgeois who have watched their Division I brethren relocate to moneyed neighborhoods they can't even afford to visit.

As they learned in kindergarten, life just isn't fair.

"The gap is already there,'' Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference commissioner Dennis Thomas said with a resigned chuckle. "It's already there, and it's already huge, so I don't see much difference if it gets wider. It's so wide now, what's the difference?''

The reality is, the delineation falls not in some accountants' ledger.

It falls on the 50-yard line.

Schools with football not only make for a financial windfall but have the means to make up for a COA boost. But what if a Saturday afternoon in the fall passes with no football at all or only the FCS version? What if there aren't 100,000 people crammed into a concrete altar to pay their respects to the gods of the gridiron?

A recent study conducted by the National College Players Association estimated the COA gap at all Division I schools. Of the top 25 with the highest disparity, 17 did not have BCS football.

"We have a BCS system that kind of has one foot in the NCAA and one foot out of it, yet everything the BCS system creates impacts all of us,'' said Horizon League commissioner Jon LeCrone.

On the football field a financial disadvantage may not make such a big difference. So what if someday Ohio State is able to offer a COA stipend and Ohio University doesn't? The two schools aren't recruiting the same athletes anyway.

But what about basketball, where the talent gap continues to shrink despite monstrous budgetary chasms?

"In the Atlantic 10, it's absolutely critical to be able to offer cost of attendance if the schools we're competing against do,'' said conference commissioner Bernadette McGlade. "We want to be able to continue to recruit the same student-athletes as those other schools.''

Thanks to the regular successes of Xavier, Temple and Richmond, the A-10 has positioned itself as a basketball conference to be reckoned with. The league annually bumps one of the top six conferences from among the ranks as the most competitive in college basketball.

But it relies on basketball almost entirely for its revenue. There is no BCS football or any of the accompanying bells and whistles -- big television contracts, for example -- in the A-10. McGlade understandably doesn't want her conference being passed over by recruits who might someday base their college decisions on who does and does not offer that extra stipend.

But she also realizes that, however important such a commitment is, it will also require difficult choices.

"It's going to come down to an individual institutional decision,'' she said. "Schools already say that they're going to be nationally competitive in one sport and fund it accordingly and regionally competitive in another and fund that to a lesser degree. It will be up to the individual institutions to make those decisions and figure out how to make it work with Title IX.''

There is no magic remedy. For cash-strapped institutions, even for those that desperately want to keep up with the Joneses, where is the money supposed to come from?

"During this economic tsunami we've been in for several years now, that is a significant concern,'' Thomas said. "The public tends to think that everyone in college athletics is making money. I wish that were the case but it's not. There are plenty of other conferences like ours that are struggling financially, so this would be extremely significant.''

LeCrone agreed that adding COA requirements would be a difficult if not insurmountable mountain for his schools to climb. If they are asked to come up with the additional funding, he said it would put more pressure on the basketball programs to generate money, which could mean increased ticket prices. And it will put more pressure on league offices like his to somehow find corporate partnerships to generate more dollars.

None of that is as easy or as simplistic as it sounds.

"The real interesting dichotomy in leagues like ours is that sometimes we're the first that have to cut,'' LeCrone said. "You would hope we would try to cover such additional costs on the resource side but that doesn't always work.''

Perhaps nowhere is the unique balance between competitive success and budgetary limitations felt more strongly than at Butler. The Bulldogs are the flag carriers for all mid-majors, the team that has rewritten the basketball hierarchy with back-to-back national championship game appearances.

According to the NCPA survey, Butler's estimated COA hovers slightly below the national average -- at around $2,050 per athlete -- but that is no small fee for a university that believes wholeheartedly that what is right for one team is right for all.

"For us, it would have to be across the board,'' athletic director Barry Collier said. "That's just part of our commitment as a university, that we wouldn't do for one sport what we couldn't do for all of them.''

For now, a cost of attendance adjustment remains merely one of myriad suggestions in the hot-button issue of paying college athletes. But it's one that is being taken seriously. The A-10, MEAC and Horizon League already have had some preliminary conversations about the idea and plan to revisit it more seriously during their summer meetings.

The irony, of course, is that within these leagues -- where coaches aren't being paid on the Hollywood scale and universities aren't cashing in to the tune of multimillion dollar windfalls -- there isn't an outcry for a cost of attendance raise.

"Most student-athletes, I think, understand that they are getting a pretty good deal with their participation in athletics,'' Thomas said. "A college education is in the five-figure range and you multiply that over four years, that's a heckuva deal. I think for the vast majority of student-athletes, that's what they come to school for and they realize they are getting something very valuable for their participation in athletics.''

Ah, but what do the Joneses think? That's what matters, after all.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.