Student Well-Being

Big Ten Discusses Paying Student-Athletes’ Living Expenses

By Bryan Toporek — May 26, 2011 4 min read
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Big Ten officials broached the subject of giving student-athletes enough money to cover their living expenses during the conference’s spring meetings last week.

Athletic scholarships currently cover tuition, room and board, and books, but not other living costs such as transportation, clothing, and food. The gap between what a scholarship covers and the true cost of living expenses varies from school to school, but studies often estimate the gap to be around $3,000.

“Forty years ago, you had a scholarship plus $15 a month laundry money,” Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said, according to ESPN. “Today, you have the same scholarship, but not with the $15 laundry money.”

With TV revenues for the major conferences booming, and showing no signs of slowing down any time soon, the Big Ten officials proposed using some of that extra cash to fund students’ living expenses. (Each Big Ten school reportedly earns $22 million/year from its TV contract, according to the Fort Wayne News Sentinel.) Delany, however, stressed that the conference has only begun to discuss such a proposal, and he plans on reaching out to other conferences to discuss the feasibility of such a plan.

NCAA President Mark Emmert is on the record as being interested in increasing scholarships to cover student-athletes’ living expenses, although he remains steadfast in his unwillingness to pay student-athletes to play games. Ramogi Huma, the executive director of the National College Players Association, also supports the idea of including living expenses in student-athletes’ scholarships.

“Unless the student-athletes in the revenue-producing sports get more of the pie, the model will eventually break down,” Britton Banowsky, Conference USA commissioner said. “It seems it is only a matter of time.”

After news broke about the pay-for-living-expenses proposal last week, plenty of college officials raised concerns about some facets of the plan.

“Could it be limited to only revenue-producing sports?” ACC Commissioner John Swofford said. “I’m not sure we would want to do it. And from a legal standpoint, how does it mesh with Title IX? I think we’re a ways away from getting there. But it’s a student-athlete welfare issue. It’s a way to enhance the student-athlete experience and put a dent in some of the financial strains that some athletes have.”

Delaney also acknowledged that certain conferences (namely, mid-majors) may not be able to afford such a plan, as it could cost roughly $300,000 for football and male basketball players alone. A spokesman for Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson told ESPN that he did not believe the conference members have yet discussed the potential for paying the living expenses of student athletes.

“The cost-of-living component issue is a legitimate problem, and the NCAA is on-record saying that,” said Northern Iowa athletic director Troy Dannen to the Des Moines Register. “I don’t think that’s any secret. I would much prefer the NCAA look for a way that all institutions across the board can address the problem as one.”

Dannen also raised the same question of equality as Swofford did. “When it gets down to scholarships, (to) student-athletes, a scholarship in football is worth the same as a scholarship in soccer,” Dannen said. That means the same $3,000 stipend that gets distributed to male football players would also have to be given to members of nonrevenue-generating sports teams.

The Register estimated that the additional stipends, at $3,000 a piece, would have cost Northern Iowa $1.1 million in 2009-10, and the University of Iowa would have spent an extra $1.85 million. UNI spent $13.7 million total on athletics in 2009-10, while the University of Iowa spent $74.2 million on its athletic programs.

Certain members of the Big Ten, such as Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, suggested that conferences should only pay the living expenses of athletes if they can afford it.

“The reality is, if there’s cost of attendance and you can’t afford it, don’t do it,” Smith said. “The teams you’re trying to beat can’t do it either. Don’t do it because Ohio State’s doing it. That’s one of the things schools at that level get trapped into thinking.” (This isn’t the only time an Ohio State athletic official has made potentially controversial comments about the difference between BCS and mid-major schools this past year, thanks to Ohio State President Gordon Gee.)

That said, if you’re a high school student-athlete looking to continue your athletic career in college, which school would you choose? The one that can pay your tuition and living expenses, or the one that will leave you thousands of dollars in the hole each year?

The Big Ten’s proposal ultimately amounts to even further separation between the haves and the have-nots in college sports. Major conference teams, which reap millions each year from lucrative TV contracts, may well be able to provide additional funding for their student-athletes. But what happens to the teams that can’t?

Is this proposal really just a way to avoid another Michigan-Appalachian State from happening to major conference teams?

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Schooled in Sports blog.