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Post Could $200 bankrupt college sports?

Thursday September 23, 2010

Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams is the latest to suggest that a small stipend for student-athletes could be enough to help ease their financial load while maybe even keeping a few in school longer. (h/t Blutarsky) Anyone who went to college appreciates the need for a little spending money, but I’m never quite convinced that proponents really think through the finances. That’s before we even consider whether a few hundred bucks would keep away the hundred-dollar handshakes and stop marginal players from turning pro.

Williams seeks to limit the financial hit by limiting the stipend to players from revenue-producing sports. There’s a few gotchas with that plan:

  • What’s a “revenue-producing sport?” Not all sports are revenue-positive at all schools. Of course Williams means football and men’s basketball, but even those aren’t universal money-makers. Just 68 of 120 Division I FBS football programs make money. Basketball is similar. Using a revenue-positive test, would the significant number of football and basketball programs that lose money be precluded from offering a stipend and consequently put themselves at a clear recruiting disadvantage? Or would they be forced to add that expense and lose even more money?
  • Even if an individual sport is revenue-positive at a certain school, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the athletic department is rolling in cash. Only 14 of 120 Division I (FBS) athletic programs are in the black. Athletic departments rely on their revenue producers to fund the rest of the program, and even then most usually come up short. That’s after all of the money from the TV contracts and the basketball tournament has been distributed. Williams should know better: even his own athletic department and his own program has had to cut its budget recently.
  • I’m sure the Title IX folks would love a stipend system where the vast majority of payments would go to male student-athletes.

For those reasons, especially the third, I’ve always seen paying student-athletes as a binary decision. Either you pay all scholarship student-athletes of both genders, or you pay no one. After all, football and basketball players aren’t the only student-athletes who often come from poverty or feel the financial pressures of remaining an amateur.

Here’s the math anyone floating a stipend proposal will have to work with: A major program like Georgia has around 500 student-athletes on scholarship. 500 scholarship student-athletes receiving $200 each month is $1,200,000 over a year on top of the cost of the scholarships. It’s $900,000 if you limit it to a 9-month academic year. Even if by some miracle you’re able to limit the stipend to football and men’s basketball players, you’re still looking at around a quarter of a million dollars annually. A few major programs have that kind of cash on hand. Most, including Williams’ own Maryland program, don’t.

Maybe I’m wrong, and perhaps the NCAA is sitting on some huge treasure trove of cash as Williams seems to think. So let’s shift the burden from the schools to the NCAA. Paying $200 monthly to the scholarship student-athletes of the 346 D-1 basketball teams as well as the 120 FBS football teams would take just under $36,000,000. In perspective, that’s just about the entire surplus generated by the NCAA in their last fiscal year. And, again, that’s before the Title IX crowd has had its say.

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