Stipends a new factor in NCAA sports

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Freshman BYU soccer player Madie Siddoway was surprised last summer when she opened her bank account and found an unexpected deposit from Brigham Young University for $4,500.  It was her first semester as a college student and she was checking her bank statements to see if her scholarship check had been deposited.

“I didn’t know until I saw the money in my account,” Siddoway said. “Then I talked to my coach about it.”

She was unaware of the new NCAA policy allowing BYU and other universities around the nation to pay living stipends for college athletes.

Awarding stipends

Student athletes on scholarship have always received funds to cover the cost of tuition, books and rent. But as of August 2015, in addition to their scholarship funds, athletes are able to receive a “cost of attendance” stipend each school year.

The amount that each school pays their athletes varies from school to school and, with each financial aid office determining the cost of living for a student athlete living in their respective city. There’s no universal formula for determining stipend amounts, which are paid in addition to scholarship checks. All scholarship student athletes of a university are paid the same amount, regardless of the sport they play.

“A scholarship is worth ‘x,’ and the full cost of attendance that the university publishes is ‘y,’ and there has always been that gap,” said BYU Associate Athletic Director Dallan Moody, who is in charge of student athlete finances. “That amount is all determined by the financial aid office.”

There is no set rule as to how much a school is allowed to pay its athletes. According to a 2015-16 database compiled by CBS Sports of schools in the 11 Division-I FBS conferences, BYU pays its student athletes $4,500 per year, while the University of Utah pays its student athletes $3,574 per year and Utah State pays its student athletes $3,720 per year.

The NCAA works to ensure that college student athletes are truly students first and athletes second. According to the guidelines at the NCAA’s website, college athletes may not receive a salary, contracts with professional teams, prize money, benefits outside of the NCAA sanctioned stipends, or receive representation from agents. Additionally, student athletes are not allowed to play with professionals.

Supporting student athletes

While the rule changes seem to benefit collegiate athletes, there are supporters and detractors of the policy.

Supporters say athletes should be rewarded financially for their efforts, as they often are unable to work long hours and risk injury while making money for the school. Detractors, however, say paying athletes violates the spirit of “students as athletes,” and could encourage an even greater focus on athletic, rather than academic, performance.

BYU’s Moody supports the rule change.

“It’s all about the student athlete welfare; putting them in a position to be successful and helping all the athletic programs to be successful,” Moody said. “Student athletes are a big part of that.”

A common struggle for student athletes everywhere is time management. Student athletes are required to carry a minimum of 12 credit hours per semester in order to keep their eligibility to participate in their sport. According to USA Today, student athletes spend at least 40 hours a week on academics and at least 45 hours a week on their sport — essentially making it a full time job.

“It seems like the demands on the time of an athlete are always more, more, more,” Moody said. “So it limits their time to go out and earn money to help cover those personal costs that a scholarship might not cover.”

Athletes don’t get paid as though they carry a full-time job, and some claim they don’t have enough money to pay for groceries, put gasoline in their car, or purchase flights to go home and visit their families. The extra income from attendance stipends are helping them cover those expenses.

“I think it’s a good thing because we don’t get a chance to work during the school year,” said Cassidy Smith, a freshman on the BYU women’s soccer team. “So it makes up for the groceries and things like that. Because it’s not tons of money, it’s not more than we need, but it helps you get by.”

Generating revenue

Perhaps the most popular argument against college student athletes receiving payment is that they already receive a free education. However, many schools — especially those in Power Five conferences — are making much more money from student athletes who play major sports than they are losing by paying their tuition. 

Television contracts are perhaps the largest sources of revenue for college athletics. The Big 12 conference has a $2.6 billion television contract with ESPN and Fox Sports over the next 13 years, while the Pac 12 conference has a $3 billion deal over the next 12 years. In 2012, ESPN signed a $7.3 billion deal to cover the College Football Playoff.

With all the revenue generated from college sports, it may seem ironic the only ones not receiving a share of the money are the student athletes. University of Alabama head football coach Nick Saban is paid over $7 million a year. University of Kentucky head basketball coach John Calipari makes over $6 million per year. In most states, the highest paid public employee is either a college football or basketball coach.

BYU soccer player Sabrina Macias was surprised when she learned how much money college football and basketball coaches were paid.

“I didn’t think it was that high. That’s a lot. Coming from student athletes, that’s a lot,” Macias said. “We’re the ones acting upon it and stepping onto the field and doing the actions, and we’re not getting paid, but they are.”

Macias is grateful for the rule change and to see that student athletes are receiving at least a small portion of the money they bring in for their schools.

“I use it for gas because I drive back and forth a lot. It’s very helpful,” she said.

Fear of escalation

A major concern of some is that paying tuition for student athletes will get out of hand. They’re worried that competition between schools to pay their student athletes more than their competitors will drive the amount student athletes are paid sky-high.

However, Moody says there are checks to escalation, as the amounts paid are not controlled by the athletic departments, but by the financial aid offices.

“Cost of attendance is traditionally set by the financial aid office,” Moody said. “The fear was, if the athletic department goes into the financial aid office and says, ‘We need to raise our cost of attendance because I have to out-pay my recruits so that he’s not going to Georgia but going to Auburn or wherever,’ that would put pressure on the financial aid office. But that won’t really work because you’re taking 600 athletes at a school with 40,000 kids and you’re going to change the whole cost of attendance for those 600 kids, and it’s going to affect student loans and federal funding and all kinds of things. So that won’t happen.”

There are concerns that an athletic department could persuade a financial aid office to artificially inflate the cost of living, resulting in higher stipends an potentially an upper hand in recruiting. However, universities report stipend amounts to the federal government, making it difficult for schools to fudge numbers.

Tightening the budget

Another concern is that stipends squeeze out the funding of other university interests, including smaller sports. Most schools run a tight budget.

Moody explained some of the difficulties of managing theses expenses.

“It puts pressure on athletic budgets across the country,” he said. “Only the upper-tier schools have the money to pay for this and not really blink an eye. The rest of us have to be creative in either cutting some additional expenses, or we go find more revenue in order to pay for it.”

Because stipends are new, it’s difficult to determine whether there have been financial problems so far. When asked about potential problems in the future, Moody responded that he’s curious about what the future holds.

“I’m very interested to see what will happen — if people say they can’t keep up anymore so they need to cut some things, or they lose a sport here or there or pull back on scholarships, or they find more revenue and TV contracts get bigger and bigger, or they don’t pay their coaches as much. It’s difficult to tell what will happen,” he said. 

But not all college athletes receive the cost of attendance stipend. Scholarship players receive the funds in addition to their scholarship checks, but walk-on players, who already pay their own way to go to school, don’t receive any stipend at all.

Many walk-ons, including BYU’s Smith, didn’t know about the stipends until they arrived at school. Smith doesn’t receive the stipend because of the implications with her partial scholarship. 

When asked if she thought the process was unfair, Smith said it wasn’t.

“I have a chance to earn it,” Smith said. “So they told me that as I continue to play more and do well that I can earn more money. If they don’t follow through and give me the money I earn later on, then yeah, I might get upset, but for now it’s fine.”

While Siddoway works hard to balance her schedule between school, soccer and a social life, she can rest easier as a result of the rule change, knowing that she will be better able to afford all of her expenses.

“As a student athlete I’m so grateful for the extra money,” she said. “It really helps a lot.”

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