Cost of attendance boost nears reality

You already know the background: The NCAA is under siege from nearly all sides. Casual fans assume the sport is corrupt. Avid fans watch in horror as naked greed drives drastic conference realignment. Partisans moan of inconsistent, arbitrary punishments levied for violations of outdated, silly rules.

Truth is, the NCAA only has control over so much of what college sports really is. The folks in Indianapolis can't do a lot of things. Stopping conference realignment is among them. NCAA president Mark Emmert has done his best to publicly urge member institutions to think before jumping leagues. He's also doing his best to convince the public that the money driving college realignment is indeed money for athlete scholarships in the nonrevenue-producing sports. Those scholarships provide free educations and professional paths to thousands of deserving student-athletes each year. Almost all of those athletes will -- here comes the slogan -- go pro in something other than sports. It's a valid point.

But Emmert can only urge. He can only attempt to persuade. He can't force universities to stop throwing themselves at the first league that smells like money. And if he can't do that, he can't do much to change the overriding perception that college athletics -- in which a school can abandon traditional rivalries for the sake of extra millions in ad-laden TV rights while refusing to allow a student to even so much as endorse a product -- is an inherently cynical, hypocritical enterprise.

If there is one step the NCAA under Emmert can make to improve this perception, it's in cost of attendance scholarships for athletes. If schools tack on an added stipend for things outside tuition, books, room and board -- money for basic living expenses and the occasional video game, say -- the NCAA can at least have something to point to to prove it is capable of meaningful change. But what will that change cost?

This idea has been bandied about for much of the offseason. Today, the USA Today reported that cost of attendance scholarships are now on the verge of fruition:

A committee weighing a number of potential changes is expected to recommend that the value of individual scholarships be raised by as much as $2,000 in the top-tier Division I, moving them closer to covering the athletes' full cost of attending school. Full grants currently cover only room, board, books and tuition.

The NCAA's Division I board of directors would act on the proposal when it meets Oct. 26 and 27 in Indianapolis.

There is "widespread support" within the committee weighing the measure, Notre Dame athletics director Jack Swarbrick said during a presentation to major-college ADs earlier this week in Grapevine, Texas. Swarbrick sits on the panel, which also appears likely to ask for a move from single-year to multi-year scholarships.

The proposal still needs to pass; it's not yet a done deal. But the inclusion of an exact dollar figure -- $2,000 per athlete -- qualifies as more detail on this issue than we've ever had before, while the inclusion of an obvious timetable for the suddenly popular measure's passing -- late October in Indianapolis -- means cost of attendance additions are closer to reality than ever before.

There is reason to praise to news. Short of paying athletes a salary, which Emmert has basically said will never happen, cost of attendance scholarships are the next best thing. They put some discretionary money into players' pockets. For one, that's just the right thing to do. Two, having some cash -- not much, but some -- may reduce the temptation to, say, trade your game-worn Ohio State football memorabilia for that arm-sleeve tattoo you've had your eye on.

But there are negatives here, too. Is $2,000 a year really enough to keep players from taking that shady agent's under-the-table offer? Maybe. Maybe not. And what about the financial pressure on athletics budgets? As Seth Davis wrote in his rebuttal to Taylor Branch's critical history of the NCAA's labor practices:

For example, did you know that out of 332 schools currently competing in the NCAA's Division I, fewer than a dozen have athletic departments that are operating in the black? And that of the 120 programs that comprise the Football Bowl Subdivision, just 14 are profitable? That means some 88 percent of the top football programs lose money for their universities -- and that doesn't even include the reams of cash the schools are spending on the so-called nonrevenue sports.

Many schools -- big, high-profile, BCS schools -- are already losing money. Sure, they're losing money because they're spending money on silly things like new facilities and private jets. But they're also losing money because running a collegiate athletics program in the post-Title IX era is very expensive. Fielding so many nonrevenue teams -- everything from men's tennis to women's swimming and diving -- and ensuring scholarships are allocated in the admirable pursuit of supporting women's athletics is very expensive. Factor in cost of attendance, and doesn't that get even more difficult?

Then there's the college hoops concern, which John Gasaway helpfully explained all the way back when the Big Ten announced its cost of attendance idea in May: If Division I mid-majors can't afford cost of attendance scholarships -- and most can't -- what will that do to college basketball itself?

If the Big Ten wants players in its revenue sports to have “full cost of attendance” scholarships, the league has the resources to make it happen. (They have the resources to make it happen even assuming the bottom-line figure would need to be doubled and shared with an equal number of non-revenue athletes in women’s sports to survive Title IX scrutiny.) But creating these new dollarships, while merely cementing existing imbalances in college football recruiting in place, would revolutionize college basketball recruiting overnight. The elite high school football player already chooses between programs that can afford full cost of attendance scholarships. Not so the top high school basketball talent. In a sport where TV exposure and NCAA bids are spread (relatively) far and wide, talent currently has far less incentive to travel in packs. That will change, dramatically, when major-conference programs can offer recruits a better financial package than what mid-majors are able to afford.

Which is exactly what the Big Ten and conferences like it want to do. From the above USA Today story:

Scholarship increases would vary by school, and Swarbrick's committee is proposing a cap: the lesser of an institution's uncovered costs or $2,000. The move, if approved next month, wouldn't be mandatory but subject to adoption by conference. Amounts for athletes on partial scholarships would be prorated.

In other words, if your conference can afford to provide an extra $2,000 per athlete, you will. If your conference can't, you won't. The Big Ten merely needs to tap that rich vein of Big Ten Network cash to get the extra two grand. Many mid-majors already schedule guarantee games against power-conference teams just to keep the gym lights flicked on. There are drastic gaps between the big schools and the little schools already, but the brilliance of college basketball upsets still shines through. If an inequitable college basketball landscape grows more so, that may be lost. It would be a shame.

Look, there are no easy solutions here. The NCAA is never going to pay athletes. It will never allow them to bargain for salaries like actual employees. It just wouldn't work. Unless the NBA and NFL build youth training academies like European soccer clubs -- and why would they, with all this free development going on in the college games -- we're basically stuck with the system as we know it.

Within that system, cost of attendance scholarships seem like the least offensive of all outcomes. It's money for players. Not much money, mind you. Elite student-athletes still aren't getting what they're "worth." But it's cash. There's something to be said for that.

The idea is not the problem. The implementation is. Instead of banding together to propose coaching salary-cap restrictions or limits on facilities spending each year -- poof: two quick ways to cut athletic department spending -- the proposal leaves it up to the conferences themselves. Some can afford it. Many can't.

In the end, there are two surefire positives to this proposal. One: money for athletes. Two: It may allow Emmert to make his argument more forcefully. See, we care about our student-athletes! We're give them a scholarship -- and then some!

But at what cost?