ST. PETERSBURG — It has been water-cooler conversation for years, a talk-radio staple when people see the billions of dollars surrounding college football and basketball and hear stories about athletes who have scholarships but can't afford things like a pizza or a plane ride home.
NCAA president Mark Emmert, in town last week to speak at the national convention of the Black Coaches and Administrators, made it clear he wants to spend time looking into how the NCAA could supplement the scholarship package given to athletes.
"We've seen in the last 20 years a huge infusion of money into all of intercollegiate athletics, because of (TV) rights, the attractiveness of games," he said at the Renaissance Vinoy. "The models of how we run games, the facilities, salaries of coaches … there's a lot more resources across the board. The one piece that hasn't changed hardly at all is the support we supply to student-athletes and their families. Despite the massive infusion of money, the size and nature of the scholarship package are still the same. … There are a whole variety of things that I think we need, I know we need to look at, that I am going to insist we look at."
Emmert said this is an acknowledgement that there are additional costs to attending college beyond tuition, books and housing. He'll hold a retreat for college presidents and administrators in August in Indianapolis, and one of the key topics is how to find a viable model to provide more to athletes.
"The critical notion is that we need to explore whether or not we should be providing in our grant-in-aid the full cost of attendance," he said. "It's not a stipend. It's not pay. It's up to a number that the federal government approves as the cost of attendance for financial aid packages. The gap between that and what student-athletes get now tends to be a couple thousand dollars per year."
The challenge is in implementing something that most schools can afford — it's not a problem at elite programs like Florida or Michigan, but if it can't be done at smaller Division I schools, the measure might only widen the gap between the haves and have-nots. Adding a $2,000 stipend at a school with 450-plus total athletes, as USF has for instance, would be $900,000 a year, or adding about 2.5 percent to the Bulls' annual athletics budget.
"For some schools, that would be a severe financial hardship. They just don't have the resources to do it. But others, it wouldn't be," Emmert said. "The question is can we make it permissive to allow schools that have the resources to do it. The concern, of course, is, 'Well, does that provide them with a competitive advantage?' So we need to think that through. On the other hand, denying support that could be very valuable to a student because some can afford it and some can't doesn't seem right either. So we've got to find the right balance."
The only difference in a supplement from one program to another would likely be in cost-of-living adjustments — a student in New York City has larger expenses than in Iowa City, Emmert points out.
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany mentioned the possibility last month, but the topic is still very much in the embryonic brainstorm phase of discussion. Asked last week in Ponte Vedra Beach about the issue, Big East commissioner John Marinatto had more questions to be answered before he'd know if such a move would have his support.
"There's so many elements. Are there gender-equity consequences if you limit it to football?" he asked. "Are there fairness issues if you limit it to certain sports? Are there economic issues because not everyone might necessarily be able to support that model? It's premature to get into specifics about whether or not you support it."
Emmert said the balance of such a program across all sports is something "we'll have to wrestle with," saying that "if you're going to provide one level of support for a football player, why wouldn't you provide it to the women's volleyball player?"
Marinatto said the issue came up more formally last month at a meeting of conference commissioners at the Final Four, but stressed that consideration of such a supplement is still a far cry from the popular notion of "paying college athletes" a share of the industry's revenues.
"To do something like that would rip at the fiber and fabric of what it is that we are," Marinatto said. "We're amateur athletics. If you're going to go out and pay players, it changes completely what you're all about."
Emmert said any reasonable solution is still "at least a year away" given the time needed to shape a proposal and examine the financial implications.
"This is something that's been kicked around before so it causes a lot of debate," he said. "I hope we can make up our mind one way or another in something like short order."