Jameis Winston is not the first athlete to have his disability or loss-of-value insurance premiums paid for by the school using the NCAA’s Student Assistance Fund. Texas A&M did the same earlier this year for offensive tackle Cedric Ogbuehi. And Baylor will help fund premiums for three football players. But Winston is the reigning Heisman trophy winner, so he draws the headlines.
The purchase raises two questions. First, do NCAA rules allow Florida State (et. al.) to do this and if so, how? Second, should Florida State do this?
As far as whether the NCAA allows this, the short answer is yes, as long as the ACC says it is OK. The NCAA national office distributes the SAF money to conferences and has a list of prohibited uses, which include:
- Salaries and Benefits.
- Grants-in-aid (other than summer school) for student-athletes with remaining eligibility.
- Capital improvements.
- Athletic development opportunities.
- Fees and other expenses associated with a student-athlete’s participation in a sports camp or clinic;
- Fees and other expenses associated with private sports-related instruction provided to a student-athlete;
- Fees for other athletic development experiences (e.g., greens fees, batting cage rental); and
- Expenses associated with a student-athlete’s participation in a foreign tour.
That is the NCAA’s entire involvement with the fund, other than gathering some reporting on the back end. Conferences handle all the rest including deciding how much individual schools get and what the approved uses are, so long as they are not on the prohibited list. You really have to stretch the definition of a “stipend” or “athletic development opportunity” to say disability or loss-of-value policies are prohibited.
Contrary to some claims, Winston’s insurance policy is well within the spirit of the Student Assistance Fund as well as the letter of its rules:
As a guiding principle, the fund shall be used to assist student-athletes in meeting financial needs that arise in conjunction with participation in intercollegiate athletics…
Winston’s participation in college athletics has generated the need for insurance to protect his future earnings. If he cannot afford those premiums, in steps the SAF.
That segues into whether Florida State should have used such a significant portion of its limited (albeit large) SAF disbursement on one athlete. The arguments tend to fall in one of two camps:
- Winston is the most valuable athlete to Florida State and therefore should receive the biggest benefits from Florida State, including SAF funds.
- The SAF is a limited resource that should be spread over as many athletes as possible. Using 10% or more of it on one athlete is improper.
Both of these arguments assume that Winston is receiving this benefit at the expense of other athletes, then making a value judgment about whether that is proper. But the premise, that Winston’s gain is another athlete’s loss, might be flawed.
This is a list of what Washington State budgeted for its SAF distribution in 2010–11. Around $300,000 was split up among 23 line items. Granted this is old information, but I believe WSU’s use of the fund is representative of how most power conference schools spent and still spend their SAF distribution, which has grown since 2010–11. Between 2011–12 and 2013–14 alone, the fund grew from around $66 million to over $75 million.
Washington State’s list includes a large number of items which could be funded through the general athletics budget, especially given recent deregulation. Using the NCAA rules from 2014–15, only one line item on Washington State’s budget can only be funded by SAF: the $40,000 Student-Athlete Allowance. That is typically thought of as the core use of the Student Assistance Fund, paying for travel home, clothing, school supplies, etc. The food-related items alone on Washington State’s list total almost as much as the Student-Athlete Allowance.
I’ve been critical of how schools use the Student Assistance Fund in the past for things that could be covered by the athletics budget. I hope as Washington State’s revenue increased over the past few years, it shifted some of these expenses away from SAF.
But I’m willing to bet that Washington State, Florida State, and every other Division I school is still spending a significant amount of SAF money on items that could be funded another way. So it is not just possible, but actually likely, that Winston is not taking clothing away from a volleyball player on a Pell Grant but instead Florida State is buying computers, paying summer school tuition, and hosting banquets using operational funds rather than SAF.
If that is the case, paying Winston’s insurance premiums is a more appropriate use of the Student Assistance Fund than what Florida State was doing before. That doesn’t answer the question of whether one athlete should get such a big chunk of the SAF. But any improvement in how SAF is used is worth supporting and odds are this is one.