When the families of Ohio State football players found out along with the rest of the world that the Buckeyes would be in the inaugural College Football Playoff, there was a sense of excitement.
And then reality, in the form of stunningly high airplane flights and hotel room rates when it comes to traveling to the Jan. 1 Sugar Bowl, set in.
“We were all excited when we found out,” said Annie Apple, the mother of starting cornerback Eli Apple. “You know, the last week or so has been really rough for our football family, so when we found out, we were excited. Then we went online, and it’s ridiculous.”
It’s a battle faced by nearly all Ohio State fans – how can one put together a trip to New Orleans (and then perhaps another to Dallas) to support the team while not breaking the bank?
But it hits home even harder for the families of the players, many of whom spend hundreds or thousands of dollars throughout the season following their sons, grandsons, brothers and nephews only to see the bill skyrocket for the postseason – just when the fruits of all the labor and sacrifice are being realized.
Apple, who said her family rang up more than $15,000 in travel expenses last year when Eli redshirted, estimates a trip to New Orleans for her family of four will cost more than $4,500, all in the heart of the holiday season.
She said OSU compliance has been aware of the issue since August and has worked diligently to figure out a way within NCAA rules to provide families with an $800 travel reimbursement, which will come from the athletics department's student assistance fund and must be taxed, but that is the only support available within the system right now.
“For the last two years, we’ve come to every home game, and we travel,” said Apple, who also went to games this year vs. Navy in Baltimore, at Penn State and at Maryland because of their proximity to the family’s residence in Voorhees, N.J. “That’s a cost and sacrifice we incur to support not just Eli but the whole program because we do consider every player as family, but I think when it comes to the bowl game, when the playoff committee was put together, they didn’t think about the players families.
“How are the families going to get there? It’s sad because there’s so much money.”
Indeed there is. ESPN is paying nearly $500 million per year to televise the games, with much of the money going back to the conferences and schools – the Big Ten is slotted to receive at least $24 million for its bowl slate this year plus approximately $50 million just for being part of the playoff. And the Big Ten will get $2 million to cover expenses when it comes to being part of the playoff, but that’s money that can’t go to players families.
The money wouldn’t really be an issue to a school like Ohio State, as athletics director Gene Smith has often said he favors doing all he can do for student-athletes and their families. And with the NCAA granting the Power 5 conferences autonomy to loosen up rules as far as cost-of-attendance stipends and other matters of student welfare beginning in January, there is a chance that addressing the issue of family travel will happen soon at the NCAA level.
But any such measure can't be introduced until January, when the NCAA membership can first propose and debate such issues, and as of now there are no provisions from the playoff or the conferences involved to help families foot the bill. Given NCAA rules on extra benefits, donations are off the table as well.
That’s one reason why Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer spoke so passionately on the issue in his remarks Sunday after the Buckeyes were tabbed to take on the Crimson Tide.
“I think it’s unfortunately still flawed,” Meyer said shortly after learning the Buckeyes would be in the inaugural playoff. “My biggest thing is what are we going to do with our players’ families? People are all worried about the playoff and who is going to play who. I just had a team meeting with a bunch of players, how’s that mom and dad going to see that kid go play? They should. My kids are going to get on a bus, I imagine for free, and go to the game and all that. I’m really concerned about that and I’m not sure they addressed that.
“That’s my first thought. Most coaches maybe think, well the process worked. I want to see how our players’ families are going to be able to afford two bowl games if they are fortunate enough to keep going. So they have a championship game and two bowl games and universities and conferences are making a lot of money off TV deals, how are we going to treat the players? I still haven’t heard much about it, I’m going to keep pushing it because I want to know. I’m not sure what the answer is or who the person whose going to have that answer.”
To hear former Ohio State offensive lineman Kirk Barton tell it, this isn’t a new issue – it’s been a real thing facing the team and families for years.
“And when you’re a player, this is the time of year that really sucks because a lot of players and their parents are worried about the postseason trips,” Barton said as part of his BSB blog after the Indiana game. “As soon as the selection show goes on and they announce where we’re going, everything gets jacked up. As soon as you’re going to the Fiesta Bowl, flights to Phoenix go through the roof, so it’s one of those things where there’s a lot of distractions at the end of the year, especially when people think you’re just going to beat a team.”
But this year, with the potential of two trips on the table and even more money flooding the system, many of the team’s parents could be on the outside looking in when it comes to being in the Big Easy on New Year’s Day.
“I’m not even getting into the debate about paying players or not,” Apple said. “All I’m saying is that if you want to have a college football playoff system, that’s great. You’re going to rake in so much money. My thing is set aside and get rooms or charter a plane from the school for the parents. It’s not much. It’s just the right thing to do.”