MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The announcement came and went with little reaction from the college sports world, but it brings with it another potential huge hit to the athletics budgets of Big 12 schools.
On Oct. 7, the league announced that it will allow its members “to provide education-related benefits and academic or graduation awards or incentives up to $5,980 per academic year to student-athletes in all sports who are receiving athletically related aid.”
That’s a bit of a mouthful, and perhaps the significance was buried in the verbiage. What it means is that each school, at its discretion, can pay any of its athletes who are receiving any scholarship money nearly $6,000 per year. for anything related to academics — a very wide-ranging field.
It is up to each school to determine how much to pay, and for what it will pay. Potential items can include educational aids such as computers or other equipment, postgraduate scholarships or other external educational opportunities, but also could be as simple as paying an amount each year for remaining academically eligible, achieving a certain grade point average, or completing particular courses or projects. In effect, nothing is off the table.
The new guideline came in response to the Alston vs NCAA court case, in which former WVU player Shawne Alston was a lead plaintiff in a case which sued the NCAA for preventing additional education-related benefits to football and basketball players. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and capped the yearly additional amount which could be provided per player, per year, at $5,980. The ruling also extended to all collegiate scholarship athletes.
The SEC was the first to announce that it would allow such payments, and the Big 12 quickly followed. That is the limit of conference involvement, however, as the Big 12 punted decisions such as the amount of payments, and the areas which can be awarded, to member schools.
Just as the arms race in facility building and program extras have skyrocketed, the same is expected in this area. Schools are likely going to have to pay out, or commit to, the full amount each year, as they don’t want to be functioning at a disadvantage in competition with other schools in their league.
With that assumption, basic math shows that will be another big burden on schools already staggering under losses caused by the global pandemic and somewhat decreasing attendance figures, which affects income from ticket sales. West Virginia, with 345 athletes on scholarship this year, would potentially be on the hook for $2,063,100 per year to fully fund the academic rewards program each year.
No decisions have been made yet as to the areas which will be rewarded by WVU, or by any of the other Big 12 schools. Just as in the amounts to be awarded, they are free to determine when, and for what, awards are to be made.
In order to promote a return on investment, one thought is that schools might not pay rewards or incentives out on a yearly basis, but rather hold payments until a player has earned a degree. That would not only lessen immediate drains on finances, but keep players from collecting payments for a year or two, and then transferring or leaving school. Other options, such as paying incentives to a player who leaves for a professional career, but not for one who transfers to another school, also could be considered. Again, nothing is out of bounds at this point.
If all of this sounds like paying players, it pretty much is. The advent of Name, Image and Likeness deals, which opened up this year, was a big step, and this is another. While it’s couched in a framework of academics, the lack of rules from a national or conference level, and the low bar which might have to be cleared to earn the awards or incentives, mean that those who can simply stay in school, on a team and keep their scholarships could be in line for nearly $24,000 over the course of their time in college.
As noted, guidelines and rules set by each individual school are still to be determined, but two things are certain: Scholarship athletes in the Big 12 and SEC are going to be getting another significant payday, and athletic departments are going have to figure out how to absorb another multi-million dollar hit on their budgets.