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The NCAA is Implementing the Student Athlete Stipend by Stealth

When King James VI of Scotland ascended to the English throne in 1603, he united the crowns of England and Scotland. James then attempted to unite the actual countries into Great Britain, but the English parliament thwarted his attempt. James then decided to go around parliament in areas he had total control:

Having failed to promote union by legislation, he tried to promote it by stealth, creating a pan-British court and royal household, elevating Scots to the English peerage and Englishmen to the Scottish and Irish peerage, rewarding those who intermarried across borders, and seeking to remove from each of the churches those features objectionable to members of the other national churches.

Many of James’ changes were rolled back under his successor, Charles I. England and Scotland were not formally united into Great Britain until 1707.

A similar story is playing out in the NCAA with the attempts to increase the value of an athletic scholarship. The attempts by the Division I Board of Directors to enact full cost-of-attendance scholarships, stipends, or a miscellaneous expense allowance have to date not been the least bit successful. This failure pass a stipend, especially for full scholarship revenue sport athletes, threatens to end the “big tent” era of Division I, if not the NCAA itself.

But like King James I’s union by stealth, a stipend by stealth is slowly being carved out for athletes. Attempts to openly give athletes more money have not been successful. But allowing schools to save athletes money has worked rather well.

I’ve looked before at RWG-16-3, a Rules Working Group proposal which allows schools, under the guise of “academic or career success” to provide athletes with laptops, iPads, schools supplies, and optional course materials that they don’t have to return. And Phase II of the RWG proposals includes the contentious topic of unlimited meals.

Another change has occurred with little notice and even less opposition. Proposal RWG-16-7 deregulated expenses in conjunction with practice and competition, most notably removing limits on meals during road trips and the NCAA’s limits on when teams can leave and when they must return from away games. But it also removes this language: Apparel for Community Service or Team Travel. An institution may provide a student-athlete with one shirt (e.g., polo, oxford style) bearing the institution’s logo to be used for team travel or other events at which he or she is representing the institution. The shirt may bear a single manufacturer’s or distributor’s normal trademark or logo not to exceed 2 1/4 square inches in area, including any additional materials surrounding the normal trademark or logo.

To make a long story short, this means that the NCAA has deregulated travel apparel. Which means that schools may provide athletes with any sort of clothing in any amount.

If the food issue passes (and does not come out of an athlete’s scholarship), that means the biggest universities will be able to take care of all of athlete’s clothing, all of his food, and all of his educational needs (including some high end electronic toys). All without changing the amount of scholarship.

Imagine then an athlete who is on a full grant-in-aid and a Pell Grant, which at most schools would exceed the cost of attendance. If the athlete lives off-campus, he would receive a room and board stipend, but would potentially never have to buy food. That would allow him to pocket the entire board stipend, up to $4,000 a year at some schools. No matter what sport this athlete plays, he can also now be employed at his school’s camps, allowing him to earn a couple thousand dollars each summer. That would get close to the figures tossed around in many stipend scenarios, of between a couple hundred and $1,000 per month.

On top of that, basic clothing and miscellaneous educational expenses are taken care of. The Student Assistance Fund and incidental expense waivers are still there to take care of trips home and emergency expenses. Medical expenses and health insurance have been deregulated from allowing almost anything to not prohibiting anything at all.

It is easy to see a situation where student-athletes, especially on full scholarship, will have thousands of dollars in stipends, refunds, and income with fewer and fewer expenses to spend it on. The big difference is one of transparency. Much of the benefit will be based on how aggressive a school is in finding ways to cover expenses for its athletes. That is harder to compare (and guarantee) from one school to the next, as opposed to a stipend amount or cost-of-attendance figures.

Despite the failure to get the stipend passed, the NCAA has made some major strides is loosening the reins on schools who are willing and able to provide more benefits to their athletes. Getting unlimited food passed will be as challenging as the miscellaneous expense allowance was. But if it happens, the NCAA may have essentially created a stipend for athletes by simply reducing what they have to spend money on.

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