UK Men's Basketball

Fan Fare: Paying college athletes not as easy as it sounds

Steve Spurrier wants SEC football coaches to pay their top 70 players $300 a game out of the coaches' personal bank accounts.

In a far more serious proposal, Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany says that league wants to explore changing athletics scholarships from the current tuition, room, books and meals to a "cost of attendance" model.

That would include what college athletes on full rides currently get, plus extra cash that would cover the price of things like the clothing and transportation a student needs to function at a given college.

Suddenly, the idea of at long last providing the athletes with a bigger piece of the college sports financial pie seems to be gathering momentum.

Yet it is not an easy puzzle to solve.

Last week, I surveyed five of the six athletics directors at Kentucky's NCAA Division I universities on whether they would favor something like the Big Ten plan.

What was reinforced for me is just how complex an issue this actually is.

Money ball

Not shockingly, the higher a school is in the financial pecking order of college sports, the more open to increasing the value of an athletic scholarship the AD seemed to be.

Kentucky's Mitch Barnhart said he believes "this is a discussion that's really good to have. The issue to me should be, what is best and right for the athletes, plain and simple."

Louisville's Tom Jurich says, "I would be OK with some type of stipend as long as it goes across all sports. We've made so much progress with Title IX, with women's sports, with the Olympic sports, I think those athletes absolutely have to be included."

UK of the Southeastern Conference just approved an $80 million athletics budget for 2011-12. Louisville, of the Big East, has a roughly $64 million annual sports budget.

Conversely, the ADs from the schools outside the lucrative "super-six" conferences of major-college sports — the Big East, Big Ten, ACC, SEC, Big 12, Pac-12 — were opposed to increasing the value of athletics scholarships.

"As we're constituted right now, simply from a budgetary standpoint, we could not afford something like the Big Ten is proposing," said Western Kentucky University Athletics Director Ross Bjork.

Western, of the Sun Belt Conference, spends around $20 million a year on its athletics department.

Morehead State's Brian Hutchinson says "if we're headed into a system where we're actually paying players to play, the whole essence of college athletics as we've always known it is gone. Philosophically, I don't agree with it. Then, for a school like ours, just in terms of the money, I don't see how we could ever make it work."

Morehead, which plays non-scholarship football, has an athletics budget of roughly $6.5 million.

Eastern Kentucky's Mark Sandy said "I'm not for (the Big Ten proposal)."

To illustrate why, Sandy says suppose the "cost of attendance" stipend was $100 a month for 10 months of the year.

"We have around 350 athletes," the EKU AD says. "That's a $350,000 expense in a $12 million budget. That's 3 percent of our total budget at a $100 (a month). What if the stipend was more? Either way, I don't know how schools at our level would afford it."

All kinds of issues

Even among those who are favorable to the Big Ten proposal, there are complicating factors that would be difficult to solve.

To start with, do you raise the value of all athletics scholarships or just for those in the most lucrative sports, football and men's basketball?

If you tried the latter, there would almost certainly be Title IX implications because you'd be treating one set of male athletes differently than all your female sports participants.

"I would think the federal government would get involved in that," Barnhart says.

If the cost of attendance stipend was adopted, is it a set amount of money determined by the NCAA or is it decided by individual schools and conferences?

After all, the cost of attending a school in New York City would likely be very different than attending a college in Montana.

Yet if you allow different schools and/or different conferences to set varying stipends, they would conceivably reap a recruiting advantage. Come to our school, we pay more.

"First off, we'd have to all agree to a standard, 'what is cost of attendance,'" Barnhart says. "We'd all need some kind of apples to apples standard."

What about athletes in sports where there are partial scholarships? Do they get the full stipend or a pro-rated amount equal to the percentage of their scholarship?

Are walk-ons eligible for the stipend?

"I think you have to include walk-ons. Have to," Jurich says. "I think that's fair."

A hidden agenda?

There is a school of thought in the college sports community that the enthusiasm for enhancing athletics scholarships in the bigger conferences is about more than fairness to the players.

Some see it as a means of the wealthy leagues separating themselves from the conferences with less money.

"I do not know that (is the case), but I also don't know for sure that you can rule that out," says WKU's Bjork, who came to Bowling Green from a position in the athletics department of UCLA of the Pac-12.

If you wind up with the "super six" conferences having a different scholarship structure for sports than the rest of what is now Division I athletics, EKU's Sandy wonders what happens to the NCAA basketball tournament.

"You need the little guys," the Eastern AD says. "The appeal of March Madness are the upsets, wondering who will be the next Butler or the next VCU. I mean no disrespect, but (the charm of the NCAA tourney) is not whether Duke will win another championship."

UK's Barnhart says there is "no conspiracy" among the bigger conferences to weed out the smaller ones from college sports. "But the issue should be what's right for the athletes, not what's best for conferences," he said.

Louisville's Jurich says "that the world is changing, and college sports has to change with it. It may come down, if you don't have the money to be (at the top level), it's time to look at something else."

Less cheating?

One argument often made for various proposals of increasing the compensation to college athletes is that it would lessen cheating by lessening the financial pressure on athletes.

I don't believe that. I'm not alone.

Says Jurich: "If you pay somebody $100, somebody is going to want $200. Pay somebody $200, somebody (else) will offer $300. Agree that everyone gets $300, somebody will want $400. It's human nature. That won't change."

Bottom line

In a world where the NCAA, many of the major-conference schools and the elite-level coaches are reaping vast financial windfalls, it's easy to believe the players deserve more of the bounty.

It's making the pieces of that puzzle fit that might vex even Einstein.

Says Barnhart: "This is a good discussion to be having. I don't know that it means anything is close to happening."