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Where Athletic Scholarships Fall Short

By Keith Dunnavant For more than half a century, the athletic scholarship has been a bright example of the American meritocracy. Hundreds of thousands of athletically accomplished young people have used the grant-in-aid system to work their way through college, trading their skills for the opportunity to earn an education.

Yes, the system has been prone to abuse. Pay-for-play scandals and incidents of academic fraud are rampant, and many athletes, especially in the high-profile sports of football and basketball, treat college as little more than a semi-pro sham (see BW, 10/20/03, "A Whole New Ball Game?"). But countless others use it as a lifeline out of poverty and into successful careers beyond sports.

EVERYDAY EXPENSES. Big-time college sports has a dirty little secret, though: The athletic scholarship doesn't cover the full cost of attending college. Under National Collegiate Athletic Assn. rules, scholarship recipients may get only tuition, fees, room, board, and books. As any parent with college-age children knows, the cost of everyday campus life goes beyond these major expenditures.

Grant-in-aid doesn't provide cash for incidentals such as laundry and toothpaste. Because plenty of players must train nearly full-time during the school year, they can't work to generate money for such essentials, creating an inevitable shortfall for the most impoverished.

No one is suggesting that college athletes should be paid. That's another issue entirely. But what constitutes a full scholarship? Intelligent people can argue over the amount, but certainly the current guidelines don't adequately address the needs of student-athletes. Now, joining those fighting for more funding is a powerful new ally -- the NCAA's new president, Myles Brand.

DWINDLING VALUE. It makes no sense that a scholarship student in the biology department can be awarded enough funds to cover incidentals while a high-achieving athlete must subsist on an arbitrarily lower amount. Scholarships come in all shapes and sizes, but the athletic grant-in-aid is by no means a full ride. Besides, the system is rife with hypocrisy. The NCAA insists that the athletes live as ordinary students but then makes it difficult for many of them to really do so.

The athletic scholarship is actually worth less today than it was 30 years ago. The original grant-in-aid legislation, in force from the mid-1950s until the mid-1970s, provided $15 per month in so-called laundry money along with two free tickets for every game, which athletes were allowed to sell. The laundry money provision was eliminated as a cost-cutting measure, and the ticket grant, which became a source of booster abuse, was terminated by the NCAA.

Debate over the stipend heated up recently after Nebraska legislators passed a law permiting state colleges to add a cash allowance to scholarships. But even if it were acted upon, such a statute would run afoul of current NCAA regulations. Changing the national rules to provide for a universal stipend is a better idea.

WHERE'S THE MONEY? NCAA chief Brand supports the initiative: "We should provide student-athletes with the full cost of attendance." He vows to use his bully pulpit to press the issue with his constituents and favors a stipend of perhaps $2,000 to $3,000 each year. "We just don't have the aid schedule correct yet," says Brand.

Even if such a stipend rule were passed at the national level, many college officials insist they would have no way to fund such a massive new expenditure. With nearly 50,000 athletes on scholarship in Division 1 schools, adding a stipend of $2,000 annually would cost about $100 million. Brand suggests that the money could come from the NCAA's $6 billion basketball contract with broadcaster CBS. But at a time when the vast majority of colleges are struggling to balance the books, who believes fairness will trump finances? Dunnavant is the author of The Fifty Year Seduction, to be published next year by St. Martin's Press

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