Friday, May 29, 2015

Legal precedent exists regarding cost of attendance and a level playing field

Cost of attendance stipends are a serious source of concern among coaches and athletic administrators. Those who cannot afford the stipend, or believe they are disadvantaged in recruiting because their stipend is less than their competitor's stipend, are trying to figure out ways to "level the playing field."  Those who can afford them and are able to offer stipends greater than their peers are resting easy.

Coaches and administrators at Georgia are concerned about the impact their lower cost of attendance stipend for student athletes will have on recruiting.  Men's basketball coach Mark Fox is seeking a way to "protect a level playing field" and calls the differential a "massive issue."  And Georgia Head Football Coach Mark Richt has shared his concerns, indicating he's discussed the matter with attorneys to figure out a way to "level the playing field."

Alabama Head Football Coach Nick Saban is no less vocal about the issue, calling the disparities a "nightmare."

USA Today Columnist Dan Wolken calls out the SEC's complaints in a lengthy article, saying "the SEC should be above whining and complaining about level playing fields."  And the NCAA is very clear that it no longer is concerned about equality.  Consider these quotes from NCAA President Mark Emmert prior to high-resource schools achieving governance autonomy.  Those with sufficient resources and the ability to pay the stipend can do so, and won't be restricted by those who cannot do the same.  The NCAA changed its governance to reflect this philosophical shift.

The legality of "leveling the playing field" with schools agreeing on (a lawyer would call it colluding) the amount they will collectively offer is dubious at best.  The grant-in-aid and cost of attendance stipend is institutional financial aid.  And there is very relevant and applicable case law that involved the Ivy League and other institutions who were accused of anti-trust practices regarding financial aid in the 1990's.

The Ivy League ultimately agreed not to conspire when determining financial aid awards for individual students but the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) continued to defend their practice.  MIT eventually settled and was forced to change its policies as well.  The following white paper from the American Bar Association provides additional insight and numerous other articles about the legal precedents exist.

The courts ruled colluding over financial aid awards were "plainly anti-competitive."  In light of the current legal challenges facing college athletics, any decision by the NCAA or specific conferences to restrict cost of attendance stipends would be swiftly met with a lengthy and expensive legal challenge that would be hard to justify over variations in stipends of a few hundred dollars per month.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Memorial Day is a special one in college athletics

If you are a fan of college athletics, Memorial Day is a special one.  Lacrosse enjoys its annual crowning game and this year's event featured a dominant performance by Bill Tierney's Denver Pioneers.  Tierney won his seventh national championship, after winning six during his tenure at Princeton (I was fortunate to be on the sideline for his sixth title).  The title blazes new ground for the sport with the Hall of Fame Coach winning a title well outside the Eastern seaboard, and gives hope to the ideal of nationalizing a sport that is growing at tremendous rates across the country.

Interestingly, lacrosse's growth comes at a time when people are questioning the popularity of the national past-time - baseball.   But the drama of baseball was on display just before the lacrosse national championship game during its NCAA selection show.

The Bradley Braves, which hadn't been to the NCAA championships since 1968, had a strong RPI yet were considered a bubble team.  Bradley waited throughout the entire bracket announcement at a local restaurant with the public and media in attendance to learn their fate.  And in true baseball form, the game wasn't over until the last out.  With 63 teams already in the field, Bradley was announced as the 64th and final team in the field, heading to the Lousiville Regional to face Michigan - the Big Ten tournament champions.  This short video shows the incredible angst of the student athletes as the final bracket is unveiled and the unbridled joy that comes from having ones dreams achieved when victory is snatched from the jaws of defeat.

On a day where we all gave thanks to those who served and sacrificed so that we could enjoy the freedoms that come with living in this great country, seeing the benefits of hard work and dedication provide rewards to good people made it a Memorial Day that will be remembered by the young men of these teams, and many other student athletes for a long, long time.  College athletics gets it right sometimes - more times than it gets credit for. And every year, Memorial Day is one of those days.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The distraction of amatuerism in intercollegiate athletics

Cost of attendance stipends are at the forefront of athletic administrators' minds these days.  The questions of affordability, equity, recruiting advantages and a host of other factors make this one of the more anticipated changes in the history of student-athlete welfare reform.

At NCAA Division I colleges and universities, the ability to offer these payments varies widely due to disparate financial resources on each campus.  Significant analysis is occurring at cash-strapped colleges and universities to identify ways to cover these additional expenses.
Advocates for these changes come from a number of powerful constituent groups including:
  1. The media - The media (traditional and social) has effectively controlled the narrative that student-athletes in football and basketball are exploited and that they should be further compensated for their skills, fame and institutional revenue generation.
  2. The courts - Lawyers of all types, recognizing that there are deep pockets in some areas of college athletics have adopted the "Robin Hood" stance looking to take from the rich and give to the poor.
  3. Athletic administrators - The economic leaders in college athletics, primarily in the Power Five conferences, continue to enhance student-athlete benefits to respond to media criticism, legal challenges and unfavorable optics regarding a variety of student-athlete welfare issues.    
Which leads us to the group with the most to gain or lose: student-athletes themselves, who hold an increasingly powerful voice in NCAA governance matters.

Recent research indicates some student athletes spend more than 50 hours per week on their sport and are too exhausted to study.  The demands also extend to out-of-season student athletes who report the time commitment to be similar to their in-season expectations.  Considering how little time student athletes have to shape their educational experience, an experience that by their own accounts mirrors or exceeds the time demands of a full-time staff member, it is little wonder that compensation is being sought and lawsuits filed in lieu of a more well-rounded collegiate experience.

Most athletics administrators and college and university leaders will argue that the amateur model is the correct one and a requirement for intercollegiate athletics to continue to exist on college campuses.  But there will be little difference between amateur and professional athletics by August 2015 when cost of attendance stipends become permissible and are paid to thousands of student athletes across the country.

Consider the definition of amateur - a person who engages in a study, sport or other activity for pleasure rather than financial benefit.

Contrast it to the definition of a professional - a person engaged in a specified activity as one's main occupation rather than as a pastime.

Are student athletes amateur or professional?  Consider the following list of benefits:
  • Tuition and fees
  • Room and board
  • Books
  • Medical insurance and care
  • Clothing and apparel
  • Travel for family to post season competition
  • Cost of attendance stipends
  • Dedicated medical staff
  • Psychologists and counseling services
  • Strength training and fitness
  • State of the art facilities
  • Nutritionist supervised and chef prepared meals that are virtually unlimited
  • Travel throughout the United States and the opportunity to travel internationally once every four years
  • Academic support, tutoring and advising
  • Laptop computers and iPads
  • Four year guaranteed grants-in-aid
  • Insurance against career ending injuries
In addition a series of legal challenges against the NCAA and its member schools may soon necessitate additional benefits for student athletes including:
  • Royalty payments of no less than $5000 per year following the conclusion of a student athlete's career as compensation for the use of a their name, image and likeness
  • Minimum wage payments for participation
  • Unionization
  • The possibility of open bidding and a free market economy for the services of individual student athletes
The list of benefits and payments a student-athlete receives in exchange for 50+ hours of athletic engagement clearly makes their participation more than a pastime.

I recently conducted a very informal survey of seven Division I athletic departments (four public universities and three private universities) to compare what a full grant-in-aid student-athlete with a cost of attendance stipend will receive contrasted with the salaries of full-time staff members in their athletics department.  Most of these staff members have degrees and in some cases graduate degrees, are "exempt" (salaried) employees and work significantly more than a 40 hours per week.

At the private institutions I surveyed, between 45% and 67% of the professional staff in the department received a salary that was less than the value a full grant-in-aid student athlete receives. At the public institutions between 20% and 50% of the professional staff received salaries less than the value of an out-of-state, full grant-in-aid student athlete.  Student-athletes - while indeed students - are making an athletic commitment in exchange for benefits that are on par with the salaries of the staff employed in their own athletics department.

There is no question that professionalized collegiate athletics is contrary to the historical model of amateurism - but most Directors of Athletics including Craig Littlepage (Virginia), Jack Swarbrick (Notre Dame) and Bernard Muir (Stanford) recognize that the tides of professionalism are creeping up around the sides of the amateurism boat.

Amateurism has value because it can help emphasize education as the primary and central part of a student-athlete's compensation for participation.  But the on-going debate about the increasingly minor distinction between amateurism and professionalism is in fact a distraction from the most important but more difficult to address core value of college athletics - the educational and academic emphasis that should be at the heart of the student-athlete experience.  As Northwestern AD Jim Phillips appropriately points out, the focus needs to return to education.  And once that focus is restored, college athletics' relationship to higher education will be enhanced and student-athletes will be viewed as students not professionals regardless of what they receive for athletics participation.  

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Athletic Budget Update #64

Coaches and administrators at Georgia are concerned about the impact their low cost of attendance stipend for student athletes will have on recruiting.  Men's basketball coach Mark Fox is seeking a way to "protect a level playing field" and calls the differential a "massive issue."

The Chronicle is reporting that NC State has discussed using its student athlete assistance fund as a means to enhance their cost of attendance stipend in order to make it on par or better than other institutions' stipends.

Cleveland State reinstated their wrestling program after students supported a referendum that will see them pay $1 more per credit hour to retain the team.

George Washington is cutting their budget by 5% as mandated by the University.  The department will close some of the gap through a 70% increase in external revenue and by not filling some positions.

Western Kentucky is increasing its athletic fee to counteract enrollment declines and help reduce an athletic deficit.

Shippensburg University student senate increased funding for athletics and also granted the athletic department greater control over how it spends the funds.

Criticism continues over Rutgers Athletics budget deficit, this time from Joe Nocera of the New York Times.