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Stanford’s David Shaw Gets All Twisted on Stipend Issue

At Pac-12 Media Days in Los Angeles, Stanford head football coach David Shaw was asked about “stipends”. Stipends is in quotes because even after Shaw spoke passionately against “stipends”, I’m still not sure what he is for or against:

“If the NCAA does pass this rule, we will comply, but my big comment is we’re also giving these guys a $58,000 per year education and unbelievable contacts and summer jobs and great opportunities as well, and it’s our job to make sure that these guys take advantage of these opportunities.

“I like to say that our job is to teach these guys how to make a living and not have them make a living in college.”

There’s a lot to unpack here. First of all, no one, not even the O’Bannon plaintiffs, is talking about athletes making a living in college. All the video game and television revenue diverted to student-athletes would be locked up in a trust until they graduate or exhaust their eligibility. And most of the other “stipend” plans are not an amount of money that anyone would call a living wage, whether that’s a cost-of-attendance scholarship, a $2,000 miscellaneous expense allowance, or $300 per game straight out of the coach’s pocket.

Shaw’s biggest problem is conflating amateurism with financial aid. Shaw is correct that Stanford gives its full scholarship athletes a $58,000 education. The problem is that education actually costs about $61,000. A miscellaneous expense allowance or cost-of-attendance scholarship is not an amateurism issue. The NCAA’s definition of amateurism allows for athletes to receive actual and necessary expenses. Everyone, from advocacy groups and the federal government to the NCAA and schools themselves agree that the gap between a full grant-in-aid and cost-of-attendance includes actual and necessary expenses.

Part of the blame for this confusion rests with the NCAA itself. The failure to get the miscellaneous expenses allowance passed two years ago has let this issue fester. It has become conflated with other issues that are only tangentially related, like the O’Bannon litigation or Ohio State’s memorabilia violations. Throw in comments from members of the media, coaches, even compliance people (who should know better) that this is an amateurism issue and it’s a wonder anyone can keep it straight.

Shaw then compounded his error by using the word “purist”, calling the debate over stipends instead of a discussion about grad rates “disgraceful”, and resorting to cliches about throwing money at problems and teaching people how to fish. Not only is that all red meat for opponents of amateur college athletics, but they also further cloud the issue.

For starters, I highly doubt Shaw is actually a “purist” on these issues. If he really believed that strongly that the full grant-in-aid is enough, then he would say Stanford will not comply with any new rules and will keep scholarships at current levels. He also would not allow his athletes to accept Pell Grants or use the NCAA Student Assistance Fund. And he would have no offseason conditioning program so his athletes can take full advantage of summer employment opportunities. So his views are probably more nuanced than even he is giving himself credit for.

Graduation rates and the funding for education are not separate issues. They are tied together quite closely. Along with all the different graduation rates that people have claimed should be the focus is another that compares student-athletes to students who must work part- or full-time to pay for college. The idea is to create an apples-to-apples comparison with another group who takes on significant time demands and the stress of paying for college through an outside activity. The theory goes that covering more expenses, like flights home, clothing, school supplies, and a night on the town once in a while, may boost graduation rates by reducing stress and letting student-athletes focus more on academics.

Throwing money at this problem is also not a cliche in this case because money is exactly the projectile needed. If Shaw agrees the size of scholarships for athletes is a problem (which it appears he does not), then there are no other reasonable solutions other than bigger scholarships. And bigger scholarships cost money. “Throwing money at a problem” also suggests a hasty or ill-considered decision. Given the now years of debate, discussion, and various different proposals, it is safe to say this money is being targeted at this issue rather than thrown.

Shaw is not the first coach to wade into these shark-infested waters without knowing exactly what he got into. He is not even the first coach to do so this summer. Bob Stoops came out strongly against “stipends” but later clarified his stance that he is in favor of cost-of-attendance scholarships. This offseason is making it clear that the pay-for-play debate, which already had too many facets to being with, is even murkier than before.

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