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Pell Grants Not a Substitute for Stipend

Ron Morris, columnist for the The State in South Carolina, has a passionate argument against paying players, even a stipend or a scholarship increase to the full cost-of-attendance. Namely, that many of them already get help from the federal government:

It is called Pell Grant money. Qualified athletes receive up to $5,645 per year, money that is deposited in their bank account by the federal government. The money can be spent any way an athlete chooses. Some send a bulk of the money home for family needs. Others use it to make monthly car payments. Still others use it for spending money.

Through Pell Grants, the needy among athletes also receive spending money, which dispels the myth perpetuated by coaches that their players “can’t afford to take a date out for pizza.”

It is true that many athletes receive Pell Grants due to their families’ financial situations. I would also be surprised if athletes did not receive Pell Grants at a higher rate than the general student population, especially football and men’s basketball players. It is also true that for a Pell Grant recipient on a full athletic scholarships, the combination can be a great deal since the NCAA allows athletes to keep both a full scholarship and a full Pell Grant even if the total exceeds the cost of attendance.

But to suggest that the pay-for-play debate can be answered by pointing to Pell Grants ignores one minor and one major issue. The smaller although more obvious issue is that Pell Grants are only for the neediest students. Many athletes including many revenue sport athletes do not qualify for any Pell Grant or do not qualify for the full $5,600. Pell Grants only address the part of the pay-for-play debate focused on the “starving artist” student-athlete. It does nothing to answer questions about how athletes should share in the revenue they help produce or whether athletes should have more freedom to bargain either individually or collectively.

The larger issue is are the questions raised by arguing a federal student aid program can and should substitute for paying some of the participants in a quasi-public/quasi-private enterprise focused at least in part on entertainment and revenue over education. Morris himself contributes to this problem by lumping a Pell Grant in the category of payment. It is easy to turn his argument around and ask why athletic departments and the NCAA should be able to use federal education money to help fund college athletics.

Pell Grants and other forms of financial aid, both private and public, need- or merit-based, have a role to play in the debate over what student-athletes should get. Need-based stipend plans that take into account an athlete’s other aid or their family’s ability to contribute were the next step when the original miscellaneous expense allowance proposal was overridden. Far from ending the debate over amateurism, relying on Pell Grants as a form of compensation requires even more difficult answers from the NCAA and its members.

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