NCAA deciding whether to give stipends to student-athletes

February 21, 2012

Last week, NCAA schools voted to uphold legislation that would allow them to offer multiyear scholarships. The deciding margin: all of two votes out of 330 cast.

As torn as schools are about the prospect of guaranteeing scholarship agreements for four or five years instead of one, the concept of providing stipends to student-athletes as part of their scholarship package is perhaps even more contentious, according to a number of athletic administrative officials.

If eventually passed in some form, the $2,000 stipend legislation would fundamentally alter the relationship between universities and their student-athletes because it changes the concept of amateurism and places additional financial burden on schools already paying for the education of hundreds of students signed for their athletic abilities.

“Who can afford to do it?” North Carolina Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham said in a recent telephone interview. “No one feels like they have an additional million dollars that you want to put toward this. But we also know that [athletic departments] generate an awful lot of money. To say that you can’t afford it feels almost hypocritical at times. So is it an expense you want? No. But what’s fair?”

In October, the NCAA’s Board of Directors immediately enacted proposed legislation that allowed Division I schools to offer $2,000 stipends to student-athletes who receive full scholarships. But the backlash was swift from a contingent of institutions that were not, and still are not, entirely clear on the ramifications of providing such benefits.

The NCAA Board of Directors suspended the legislation in December, but not before a number of schools — including four from the ACC — included the stipends in the financial aid offered to the men’s basketball recruits officially secured during the November signing period. The idea remains under construction, and a revised proposal will be presented to the board in April.

According to Middle Tennessee State President Sidney A. McPhee, a member of the Board of Directors who chairs the working group charged with re-crafting the stipend proposal, the idea widely was opposed for several primary reasons.

Many schools took issue with the legislation’s impact on athletic department budgets already stretched thin during the country’s recent economic downturn. Cunningham said North Carolina provides full scholarships to roughly 400 student-athletes, which potentially could equate to an $800,000 impact under the terms of the $2,000 stipend proposal.

Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina State and North Carolina were the only ACC schools to offer $2,000 stipends to the men’s basketball recruits they signed in November. David Berst, NCAA vice president of Division I, said schools would be allowed to honor the wording in such scholarships for their duration, regardless of the outcome of the $2,000 stipend proposal.

Another gripe schools had, McPhee said, was that the initial proposal did not include financial need as a factor and was intended only for student-athletes who receive full scholarships. The revised plan that is being developed by the NCAA working group will stipulate that the stipends be need-based.

“I am very much in agreement that students that have financial needs of some type are deserving of financial assistance,” Virginia Athletic Director Craig Littlepage said. “I don’t think just because someone gets a full scholarship that that means they have financial needs. There are plenty of partial-scholarship kids who probably are in even greater need than someone that might be getting a full scholarship.”

And then there was an issue of timing. The schools that offered $2,000 stipends to basketball prospects signed in November were unable to do so to football recruits signed in February. What does that mean for those student-athletes in the event this legislation eventually is passed in some form?

“That’s a great question,” Georgia Tech Athletic Director Dan Radakovich said, “and I don’t believe there’s a clear answer to that right now.”

Several ACC compliance directors, as well as officials at the conference office, voiced similar uncertainty. Berst could only speculate on possible solutions, noting that an exact answer had yet to be determined.

When the NCAA Board of Directors enacted the $2,000 stipend proposal in October, less than two weeks remained before the start of the November signing period. That left little time for school and conference officials to determine precisely what the legislation allowed. The time crunch and uncertainty over the proposal’s future deterred many schools from utilizing it.

“We had some discussion at the board level and also at our working-group level on the awkwardness of the situation that we’ve put ourselves in as a result of some schools moving ahead and signing some students” to $2,000 stipends, McPhee said. “It’s a messy situation that we just have to deal with. There’s no way around it.”

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