Less than one-quarter of the nation's wealthiest college athletic departments say they have a plan in place to maximize the amount of money they can give to athletes this year by providing cash rewards for getting good grades.
For many athletes, the academic year was a revolutionary one for their bank accounts. Boosters and brands spent millions of dollars in the newly formed marketplace for athlete endorsement deals. And while schools quickly invested in helping their athletes find ways to sell their name, image and likeness to outside bidders, they have been generally slow to reach for their own wallets to take advantage of a new, less-publicized rule that allows the athletic department to reward athletes directly for strong performances in the classroom.
In response to a federal judge's mandate, the NCAA changed its rules in August 2020 to allow schools to pay each of their athletes up to $5,980 per year as a reward for academic performance. The oddly specific dollar amount was calculated during the legal proceedings because it is equal to the maximum amount of financial value an athlete can receive in one year from awards related to their athletic performance, such as conference player of the year titles or the Heisman Trophy. The U.S. Supreme Court solidified the federal judge's ruling with a 9-0 decision in the NCAA v. Alston case last June.
According to information gathered by ESPN in the past several months from public records requests and a voluntary survey, only 22 of the 130 FBS-level schools say they have plans in place to provide these academic bonus payments to their athletes this year. Twenty months after the initial rule change, and nine months after any doubt about its legal permanence was removed, more than one-third of FBS respondents say they have not yet decided whether they will provide these additional benefits to athletes.
Schools are not required to provide any new benefits or cash bonuses, but have the option to do so. Of the 130 schools contacted, 101 provided a response. Among the findings:
• Twenty-two schools said they have plans in place to reward their athletes with payments for good grades this semester.
• Thirty-four said they have not yet decided if or when they will start to pay academic bonuses.
• Twenty said they will not make bonus payments this year, but plan to make them in the future.
• Fifteen said they have no plans to pay academic bonuses.
• Ten responded to public records requests by saying they have no relevant documents of a plan to share, or by providing documents that disclosed no information about an existing plan to make academic bonus payments.
The results provide another example of the financial disparity among schools within the bowl subdivision. Nine of the 22 schools with plans to pay bonuses this year compete in the nation's richest conference, the SEC. Georgia, the reigning national champion in football, is the only SEC school that said it was still undecided on bonus payments.
"We want to do everything we can for our student-athletes," said Hilary Cox, an associate athletic director at South Carolina, which announced its plans to pay bonuses earlier this year. "I don't think it was a difficult decision. It's a substantial amount of money, but it was something that our athletic director and administration thought was important."
Five schools in the Big 12 said they will pay bonuses this year. The ACC and Pac-12 have three schools paying bonuses this year. Wisconsin is the only Big Ten school that said it would pay bonuses this year, but it also said it was still figuring out the specifics details. Five other Big Ten schools said they will pay athletes but not this year.
The challenges of COVID-19 may have played a role in a slower-than-expected response to these rule changes, according to attorney Jeffrey Kessler, who represented the plaintiffs in last summer's Supreme Court case. He said he was pleased to see a general trend toward athletes getting more.
"The competitive market will emerge and we fully expect everyone will have these in the near future," Kessler said. "If not for COVID, I think it would have happened more quickly. ... With the combination of the educational aid and NIL, it's hard to not see that the welfare of athletes today is significantly advanced to where it was prior to the Alston decision."
All but one of the schools paying academic bonuses this year come from a Power 5 conference. UConn, a member of the Big East, said it will pay bonuses to its men's and women's basketball players who earn them this year and hopes to include other sports in the future. A half-dozen other schools from non-Power 5 conferences say they plan to pay bonuses to their athletes in the future.
UCF athletic director Terry Mohajir, whose department plans to start paying academic bonuses later this summer, said he wasn't particularly concerned about the gap between Power 5 schools and others. Mohajir said the bonus payments can make a huge difference in providing peace of mind for many athletes (especially those on partial scholarships), but most athletes won't be choosing schools based on the potential for an extra few thousand dollars per semester, so he didn't think it would exacerbate any competitive imbalance.
Mohajir said finding the money to make the payments was the main issue to be solved before UCF could move forward with paying athletes.
"We've got to budget for it," Mohajir said. "It's really just a budgetary item, that's why we're planning to do it next term."
Budgets for the additional benefits ranged from a few hundred thousand dollars up to $6 million, according to survey responses. Most schools estimate they will need to reserve between $2 million and $3 million each year to pay bonuses to their athletes.
Many athletic departments set their budget in late spring, and they likely had decided on how to allocate money for the current academic year before the Supreme Court's ruling last summer solidified these new rules.
Many schools, however, have exhibited an ability to stretch or modify their spending in the middle of a budget year when needed for coaching changes. Virginia Tech, for example, agreed this winter to pay more than $8 million to buy out the contract of former football coach Justin Fuente, but has not yet finalized a plan for how to provide an incentive for its athletes to get good grades. Michigan negotiated a $3 million raise for football coach Jim Harbaugh in 2022 after he led the Wolverines to the College Football Playoff, but has not yet decided whether it will use some of its nine-figure budget to pay academic bonuses.
Michigan and Virginia Tech both declined requests for interviews. Virginia Tech initially responded to ESPN's survey by saying it was undecided on whether or when it would provide bonus payments. When asked for an interview, a spokesman provided a statement that said the school is working through the details of how much money each athlete should receive and what the thresholds for earning the bonuses should be. He said the school intends to start implementing a program in the fall.
The lack of urgency from many schools creates a situation in which their coaches or administrators may receive hundreds of thousands of dollars as a reward for their players' performance in the classroom, while the players themselves don't receive any bonus payment. Cal football coach Justin Wilcox, for example, signed a contract extension this winter that makes him eligible to receive up to $210,000 if his players achieve high marks in the classroom this year. The players themselves won't be eligible to earn any money for those same grades this semester.
A spokesman at Cal declined a request to interview its athletic director. The school initially told ESPN that it planned to implement the bonus payments but did not yet know the details about how and when that would happen. After requesting an interview, the spokesman said the school would start to offer those payments in the fall.
Alabama football coach Nick Saban is eligible for up to $100,000 in bonus payments for his players' academic performance. The Crimson Tide athletic department did not respond to multiple requests for information about its plans to pay bonuses to athletes and has not responded to a public records request.
The athletic departments that put plans in place largely have viewed the new option as an avenue to provide as much to their athletes as they can. Most respondents with a plan said that to receive the full $5,980 payment at their schools, athletes had to achieve some combination of remaining academically eligible to compete by NCAA rules and have a clean disciplinary record.
Some schools opted for higher hurdles for their athletes to receive the money. At Missouri, athletes will receive $2,400 for reaching academic eligibility but need a GPA of 3.5 or higher to receive the full bonus. Iowa State plans to hold all bonus money its athletes accrue throughout their college career and pay it in a lump sum only if and when they graduate.
Schools have also taken varied approaches to which athletes will be eligible for the bonus payments. Some schools will offer the bonus payments to any player on any of their rosters, while others plan to offer bonuses to scholarship athletes only. Group of 5 schools such as UConn and UCF said they plan to start by offering bonuses to athletes who play the sports that generate the most revenue, and expand from there.
Unlike almost all other forms of compensation that schools can pay athletes, decisions for these bonus payments were not made at an association-wide level. Some conferences provided parameters and guidance to their schools. The Big 12, for example, decided only scholarship athletes in the conference would be eligible for bonuses, which is not the case at some other conferences. Largely, though, schools were on their own to figure out how they wanted to navigate this new option because any association-wide agreement or discussion on what was reasonable might be considered a violation of the antitrust laws that were debated in the Alston case.
"That's what was interesting about this," South Carolina's Cox said. "This is one of the first times where we're not talking collectively [as an association] about what we're doing. For us, we really wanted to put the pedal to the metal and say, 'Let's do this.'"
Kessler said the schools are now being forced to make decisions like all other independent businesses in the country "as opposed to operating as a cartel member." He said schools have had no trouble making independent decisions about how to spend their money on coaching hires or facility improvements, and he's confident that in time the competitive forces of the market will lead them to find space in the budget to pay these additional benefits to athletes as well.