VETTEL: Athlete Stipend May Be Coming Back

A federal antitrust lawsuit filed in Los Angeles could end up forcing NCAA schools to pay a stipend to student-athletes above and beyond the current scholarship limits. The suit claims the actual "cost of attendance" is roughly $2500 per year more than what a full athletic scholarship pays for.

While the lawsuit only seeks to allow NCAA member institutions to pay the additional funds in men's basketball and football, the actual ramifications would go much further. Any school that would offer the true cost of attendance would have to do so in every sport across the board. For a program the size of Florida --- which offers the equivalent of about 250 full scholarships --- the annual cost would be close to $750,000 a year.

A Little History Lesson

Up until 1973 student-athletes received a stipend for incidental expenses. The NCAA eliminated that payout as part of a massive cost-cutting initiative. A stipend of about $250 a month seems reasonable over the ten-month core of the school year.

The thought behind the incidental expenses money was to cover laundry and perhaps the odd movie or what have you. Nowadays with kids more and more likely to attend school much farther from home, a stipend should also keep in mind the cost of one or two trips home each year.

NCAA May Be Vulnerable

The NCAA has a long history of winning anti-trust legislation in part because it claims to be a "voluntary" association. While I never agreed with that argument, it worked for years. However in 1998 the NCAA suffered a huge loss in the courts when "restricted earnings coaches" successfully argued that the financial limits on what those individuals could earn was illegal. The NCAA was found guilty of collusion in fixing the wages of those individuals and eventually settled the case for $54.5 million. The lawyers in this latest litigation are using similar arguments on behalf of student-athletes.

Most Schools Can Afford It

I find it interesting the lawsuit does not seek to order all schools to up the value of a full scholarship, but instead asks the courts to lift NCAA rules prohibiting individual schools from offering more. The suit does not argue for unlimited increases, nor does it suggest a cap on what schools could pay. The court could certainly recommend a dollar figure.

The University of Florida is awash in cash thanks to outstanding programs, a great stable of coaches, superb leadership and a phenomenal fan base. A stipend as suggested would not hurt a bit. Most other top programs could also handle it. If a school truly cannot afford the stipend, then don't pay it. The NCAA could do with a little less socialism anyway. Sure, schools that offer the full cost of attendance would have an advantage over those that do not. But truth be told, those schools are not recruiting the same kids. I'm convinced the "competitive advantage" this could create would be minimal.

It amazes me that schools can claim they can't afford to pay the student-athletes a stipend while they are spending two and three times as much on coaches as they were just ten years ago. Mike Shula is reportedly about to get a new contract doubling his income to $1.8 million a year. I remember it wasn't that long ago when Steve Spurrier cracked the million-dollar mark at UF. That's where Ron Zook started. Coaching salary inflation has cost schools far more than a stipend ever would.

Suggest Conditions

If this lawsuit succeeds and schools begin offering $2500 a year to their student-athletes (or a portion thereof for athletes on partial scholarships) there are some conditions I believe should be part of any stipend system.

First, the stipend should be dependent on being eligible to compete in your sport. If you lose eligibility, you lose the stipend. You should have to be a full-time student to receive payment.

Second, the stipend should be paid monthly and student-athletes on any form on conduct probation should be ineligible to receive payments.

Finally, once the true cost of attendance is paid, no student-athlete may receive a Pell Grant. Those grants are designed to help kids who otherwise could not afford to go to college. Too often they are now used for car payments. Pell Grants can pay more than $2500 for the most economically disadvantaged student-athletes, so they may find it works out for them to decline the stipend and keep the Pell Grant. However no one should receive both.

I have long been an advocate for a stipend for student-athletes and for the elimination of the partial scholarship. I applaud those who have put their efforts into trying to make this happen. It's a shame they have to go to court to get the NCAA to do the right thing. But it's a good thing we have courts they can go to.

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