It’s a good measure of the NCAA’s public image that a story about one of the best things the NCAA does for student-athletes was received quite negatively. The Student Assistance Fund is one of the success stories of the NCAA, and something which you would be hard pressed to duplicate if you organized college athletics much differently. Regardless of whether you think $53 million is enough for student-athletes, it has to be conceded that is infinitely higher than the $0 earmarked for student-athletes in the current BCS revenue distribution plan.
Going beyond those numbers though shows some of the struggles with the SAF in particular and why the same structure that makes the SAF possible also makes it difficult to expand.
The White Settlement
Perhaps the biggest omission in telling the story of the Student Assistance Fund was the White settlement. In 2008, the NCAA settled with former football and men’s basketball players over an antitrust lawsuit filed against the NCAA’s definition of a full grant-in-aid as less than a school’s cost of attendance. The settlement created a $10 million fund for former athletes, but more notable was what was done for current athletes.
The settlement took two funds, the Student-Athlete Opportunity Fund and the Special Assistance Fund, and essentially combined them. The NCAA was required to distribute to schools at least $218 million over six years to be used according to the less restrictive guidelines of the Student-Athlete Opportunity Fund. The Special Assistance Fund was limited to needy athletes only, and could only be used for emergencies or basic necessities while the SAOF could cover many of the incidental expenses included in a college’s cost of attendance.
The NCAA recently made a minor change in the wording of some bylaws that indicates the merger of the funds will be permanent, and last beyond when the settlement period ends after this academic year. By all accounts, everyone in college athletics is pleased with the change. But it has to be acknowledged that it took a lawsuit to get there.
Haves and Have Nots
The Student Assistance Fund should be one of the great equalizers in college athletics. Money distributed by the NCAA for student-athlete use should not be tied too tightly to how big or rich your athletic department is. Unfortunately though, SAF distribution is far from a level playing field.
The biggest reason is that the SAF uses, in part, the grants-in-aid formula to determine the distribution. The grants-in-aid formula assigns points to schools based on how many total scholarships they award. Each point is worth a dollar amount. But the points escalate:
- The first 50 grants awarded are worth 1 point.
- Grants 51–100 are worth 2 points.
- Grants 101–150 are worth 10 points.
- Grants 151 and above are worth 20 points.
So to get to really significant amounts of SAF money, an institution must be awarding over 100 full grants-in-aid. A FBS football school is essentially already there with the football and men’s basketball program. The other 14 programs the institution sponsors (to get to the DI minimum of 16) will all be awarding scholarships worth 10 or 20 points.
That’s how in 2010–11 Alabama awarded over $245,000 all by itself but even a strong mid-major basketball conferences like the West Coast Conference had to split just over triple that amongst eight schools. All this at a time when the ability of a school to provide for its student-athletes is becoming a make-or-break issue in a possible split of Division I. There’s something to said for distributing revenue based on the number of scholarships awarded, but the NCAA’s escalating formula is contributing to a divide that the Association should be looking to bridge.
Optimizing Fund Use
While the NCAA’s article includes many good stories about using the Student Assistance Fund to help athletes, it also includes two major concerns. Neither are fraudulent or improper, but show a need for improvement on campuses.
First, an athlete went her entire career at the school without knowing the fund existed, despite the fact that she was needy enough to have to use money from the fund to purchase formal clothing. That should not happen. The fund is, at many schools, poorly advertised. It is not like the money is hidden from student-athletes so it can be used as part of the general fund. Use is restricted and the entire distribution needs to be accounted for and reported to the NCAA, although some schools build reserves. Rather, getting the word out is either difficult or is not a priority.
Second, in many cases the stories show the fund used to cover expenses that could be covered by schools other ways. Many travel and misfortune expenses the fund can be used for can also be covered by a school’s general budget under the NCAA bylaws or by using an incidental expense waiver. These are pre-approved waivers a school can apply to cover a wide variety of expenses; for example, every single return flight to campus a student-athlete makes.
Budgets are not unlimited but they are much ;arger than SAF distributions. It is one thing for smaller schools that are pinching every penny to use SAF money for these purposes because many times it is the only money available. But for major BCS schools to not exhaust every other way to help student-athletes before dipping into the more limited SAF is wasting the money. Larger schools should focus on using the fund just for the things that only the fund is permitted to cover, and budget for everything else.
Combined, both speak to a missed opportunity, especially for the biggest athletic departments. There is no rule in the NCAA manual that prevents a school from making sure its full scholarship athletes do not have any basic necessity. Between a full grant-in-aid, Pell grants, other sources of financial aid, training table, the SAF, free apparel, per diem, incidental expense waivers, and liberal rules about medical expenses and health insurance, no student-athlete in the largest or richest athletic departments should lack the basics like warm clothes, shelter, enough nutrition for an elite athlete, free medical care, or financial support in a time of crisis.
No NCAA rule prevents a school from providing any of this, but no NCAA rule also requires a school to provide any of it. That is the primary motivation behind student-athlete rights bills, like the one recently passed in California, or the push to turn the pay-for-play debate into one about basic survival. And schools should not just provide these things out of the goodness of their hearts. The next school that makes it a top priority to ensure that as many athletes as possible are to get the maximum amount of permissible benefits they can, will be the first. And the first school to do it will reap the rewards in recruiting and on the field.