NCAA plan stirs concern, support

  • Article by: CHIP SCOGGINS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 30, 2011 - 12:45 AM

While elite college athletes point out financial injustice, some question if schools can afford larger scholarships.

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Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins says: "You look across the street and your jersey is on a mannequin in a store. You say, 'Something is wrong here.' But what am I going to do about it?"

Photo: Carlos Osorio, Associated Press - Ap

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Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins appreciates the fact that his full-ride scholarship will save his parents more than $100,000. But like many college students, Cousins is forced to "count pennies" at the gas pump when money gets tight.

Being a college athlete has become a year-round commitment that doesn't allow Cousins to find a part-time job to pay for his expenses. He finds irony in that whenever he stops at a particular campus gas station.

"You look across the street and your jersey is on a mannequin in a store,'' he said. "You say, 'Something is wrong here.' But what am I going to do about it? I just try and voice it to you guys."

College athletes around the country soon will have more money in their pockets, beyond their scholarships. The NCAA Division I Board of Directors on Thursday approved a proposal that will allow conferences to increase scholarships by about $2,000 so that athletes can have spending money. Scholarships currently cover tuition, fees, room and board and books.

NCAA President Mark Emmert stressed that the extra money is a stipend -- based on the limited opportunities college athletes have for jobs -- not a pay-for-play system.

The full-cost scholarship proposal has both supporters and critics, and it raises concerns about whether it will create a larger divide between the haves and have-nots. Some question whether even all schools in BCS conferences can afford it, and what the trickle-down effect might be if the proposal is passed.

Emmert and the proposal's supporters say the previous model was outdated and needed reform. Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said studies show an average athlete spends more than $2,000 annually in personal expenses.

"When we played, the scholarship was worth room, books, board, tuition, fees and $15 a month," said Barry Alvarez, the Wisconsin athletic director and former Badgers football coach. "Now that's back in the '60s. That $15 now is probably worth $100. To do something like that with players, I have no problem with that."

How to pay?

Gophers athletic director Joel Maturi admits he's conflicted by the issue. Initial projections suggested the policy change could cost his department around $650,000, but that figure could be less depending on how many athletes in nonrevenue sports qualify for the money.

Maturi notes that some student-athletes are eligible for Pell Grants up to about $5,500 per year based on need. He also questions whether athletes who come from affluent families need additional money beyond the current scholarship.

"I think some kids who are desperately in need, if that is going to help them get home once during the holidays, that doesn't bother me," he said this summer. "But if Joel Maturi's son is on full scholarship, there's no need for him to be up to the full cost of attendance because I can pay for the pizza and trip home. There's a difference there. I'm not for everybody getting the full cost of attendance."

Gophers women's basketball coach Pam Borton also voiced concerns. She said she understands the financial landscape in college athletics has changed dramatically and needs adjustment. But she questions how that extra money will be used by athletes.

"Kids are spending the money going shopping and buying shoes and tattoos and buying mopeds," Borton said. "Things they don't need instead of using the money for things that they do need."

Borton fears that the extra financial burden placed on schools could lead to drastic measures.

"You have to be fair, and you have to be consistent across the board whether it's men or women, whether it's tennis or football," she said. "If not, you're going to get into Title IX issues, you're going to get into a lot of other things. ... I think you'll see more sports cut because of this, more opportunities taken away from other student-athletes in other sports."

Akron athletic director Tom Wistrcill, who previously worked as a senior associate athletic director for the Gophers, has an annual budget of $24 million -- 70 percent of it funded through the university. He estimates the full-cost scholarship plan would cost his department between $300,000 and $500,000 annually, which would be tough to fund in the face of recent budget cuts.

"The money has to come from somewhere," Wistrcill said. "Where do you get it from? I can't go out and raise $500,000 a year to pay for this."

A level playing field

Akron won the national championship in men's soccer last season and competes against the top programs for recruits. Wistrcill said they need a level playing field to continue to do that. That's why he believes individual schools should be given the opportunity to decide whether to institute the stipend, not on a conference-by-conference basis.

"In the MAC [Mid-American Conference], we have 12 schools. Let's say that eight don't want to do it at all," Wistrcill said. "I'm going to raise my hand and say, 'I've got to be able to do it in men's soccer. I have to, or we'll never challenge for the national title again.' I think ultimately it still comes back to institutional choices about where to put the resources. ... I just hope we're not rushing into something that we're going to regret down the road from a financial standpoint."

Big-business model

The idea of giving athletes more compensation -- particularly in revenue-generating football and men's basketball -- has gained momentum in recent years as TV contracts have exploded and college sports have become more about big business than amateurism.

High-profile scandals involving athletes and the ongoing conference realignment saga also have fueled a movement to reward athletes with a piece of the financial pie. More than 300 college football and men's basketball players recently signed a petition asking the NCAA for a cut of burgeoning TV revenue. Others have proposed more radical ideas such as paying athletes a salary.

"That's the tough question: Where you draw the line with all this stuff?" Gophers linebacker Mike Rallis said. "Fortunately, I don't have to make those decisions. The NCAA makes a lot of money off of us. I do know that."

Cousins has garnered national attention for his thoughtful approach in the debate. He calls pay-for-play a complicated issue that has no black-and-white answers. He insists he does not take a firm stance on either side because he understands the financial and Title IX implications, but he also believes athletes have a compelling argument.

"I don't think it will ever be put back under the rug," he said. "But for them to be able to work it all out, somebody is getting stepped on. Whether it be a nonrevenue sport, whether it be the players themselves, the NCAA, somebody is always getting stepped on. Who knows where the landscape of college athletics is going with all this consolidation of conferences. Five years from now, I may look back and the landscape of college athletics is completely different than what it was when I was here."

Wire services contributed to this report.

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