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Stipend Should Divide Division 1

Brad Wolverton has another look at the NCAA’s failed attempts to get a stipend passed. Progress so far has been minimal:

But after a series of failed attempts to carry out the proposal, the NCAA is essentially back to the drawing board. The group charged with reviving the plan intends to gather feedback on a new set of ideas this summer, with the hope of gaining the approval of the Division I Board of Directors in October.

In the 18 months since the Presidential Retreat, all that has been accomplished is the NCAA has learned what its members do not want. A $2,000 stipend for full scholarship athletes was soundly rejected. Working in equivalency sports was also scuttled. Need-based proposals and increases to the Student Assistance Fund also failed to gain traction.

The head of the Student-Athlete Welfare Working Group, Sidney McPhee, president of Middle Tennessee State University, had this to say about the opposition to increasing scholarships:

The climate has frustrated Mr. McPhee, who believes that even the less-wealthy programs have an obligation to make a priority of players and their unmet financial needs. “If you want to compete [in Division I],” he says, “you’ve got to step up.”

It’s also a matter of fairness, he says. Institutions increase aid packages for other students all the time, so why shouldn’t they do it for athletes too?

And as has been reported time and time again during the fight over stipends, this issue might be the one that ultimately splits the big tent of Division I:

Such opposition is one reason some of the wealthier programs are pushing for a further subdivision of the NCAA’s top level. If they can’t get their way on issues like this one, some observers say, they’ll just take their ball and go play somewhere else.

These two ideas tend to get conflated into one: that the little schools should suck it up and agree to allow the stipends, or else the big schools will split Division I in two.

But while stipends might be the issue that causes the split, the most likely dividing line will not be the ability or willingness to pay stipends. The split will be the ability to generate revenue or the attractiveness of a school or conference to television networks. Boise State might be ready, willing, and able to pay bigger scholarships (or at least ready and able) but might not get the chance because they happen to be in the Mountain West instead of the Big XII.

This would be a bad thing, especially if a split is not just a subdivision of Division I football but a new all-sports division in the NCAA or a new association altogether. Under most configurations floated for a split, whether a school’s soccer team could compete at the highest level in 2025 would be based not on the school’s willingness to invest in soccer or provide a good experience but on whether the school had a football team cable networks wanted to televise in 2015.

If the issue of stipends and cost-of-attendance scholarships is going to split Division I and/or the NCAA, better to base that split on a school’s willingness to provide more to their athletes, not just a school’s ability to generate revenue. Make full cost-of-attendance scholarships a requirement and require that Division I schools fully fund all their sports to the NCAA maximum.

Scholarships are just one element of redefining the obligations of being in Division I, a conversation that so far has not occurred. Schools should be required to provide a high standard of free medical care, adequate nutrition for elite athletes, and a minimum level of academic assistance based on the preparedness of students the athletic department is recruiting. All of these would help ensure NCAA schools are delivering what they promise to student-athletes.

By contrast, the focus on revenue as the dividing line devalues college athletics. The argument that athletic departments should be self-sustaining requires someone to accept both the ideas that athletics is important enough to have on a college campus and that athletics are not important enough to invest in at the same time.

If Division I added new requirements for schools to provide additional scholarship money, better medical care, and more (legitimate) academic support, then some schools would turn to the university general fund, student fees, or the state legislature to meet those demands. What should be scrutinized is not whether this happened, but how. A student fee that is approved by the student government is a completely different animal than a budget increase for athletics followed by a tuition hike decided solely by university trustees.

Division I needs to do a better job differentiating itself from Division II and requiring that scholarships be fully funded to the cost of attendance would be a good start. Many athletic departments can absorb this cost increase. Some will leave Division I while others will receive an increased subsidy from the university. But better to let schools decide their own fate rather than putting it in the hands of TV networks.

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