College Sports

NCAA athletes get no big contract, but some pay

Gary Phillips, special to
Val Ackerman, Commissioner of the Big East Conference, taken on Oct. 14 Big East media conference.
Photo: Joey Khan

For college athletes, there's good news and bad news.

A September court decision by a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld the status quo of "amateurism," a principle that essentially means student players can't be compensated beyond what it costs to attend college. In other words, college students shouldn't expect big payments or NFL-sized contracts for their athletic exploits anytime soon, even as they help feed a multi-million dollar beast of merchandise and ticket sales.

The good news, however, is that the same decision also backed the use of stipends, or discretionary funds provided by a college that can help sports participants defray living and travel costs. A number of athletic programs are already putting that principle to good use, making certain players have money for necessities and basic leisure.

The Ninth Circuit decision drew "a sharp line between making sure students don't pay out of pocket, and colleges putting money in their pockets," said Joel G. Chefitz, partner at McDermott Will & Emery.

"Amateurism is a core value of the NCAA," he said. If upheld, the decision could have deeper implications for similar cases that seek to challenge the idea of college athletes getting cut large checks for their efforts on the court and field, Chefitz added.

'A pretty easy decision'

For some students, the broad support for stipends is a good consolation prize.

Currently, there is no ceiling or floor on the amounts schools can elect to give an athlete, a principle supported by the Ninth Circuit decision. The money is helpful for college athletes constrained by the rigors of classes, practices, travel and training, and can't work a typical part-time college job.

The Big East, one of the conferences under the N.C.A.A. umbrella, has mandated these stipends for both its male and female basketball teams.

"Our presidents and our athletics directors wanted to do everything they could to support that sport and that meant doing what some of the other conferences are doing," Big East Conference Commissioner Val Ackerman told CNBC, calling it "a pretty easy decision" to give players an allowance.

"There are certain things student-athletes can't cover out of the tuition, fees, room and board formula," Ackerman said. "This gives them a little extra spending money throughout the year" for various activities, she added.

For sure, a stipend is nothing like a salary, and certainly not in line with a professional athletic contract or endorsement deals. But for players at Big East schools, the financial boost — used to defray living costs like cellphone bills, trips to and from campus, books and meals — can come in handy.

"If we want to be on-par with the other five football conferences then we have to pony up…as well," Seton Hall women's basketball coach Tony Bozzella said. "To mandate it says we have a certain criteria and certain expectations for our conference to do well."

All NCAA schools have the option to pay stipends to athletes in other sports, but few are in the Big East, where basketball is king. At Seton Hall, where players on the hoops teams get $2,600 a year, the decision to reimburse only the basketball players is based on scholarships. Basketball players get full rides, while athletes playing equivalency sports are splitting up partial scholarships.

In general, schools will pay out stipends to basketball and football players, and only a select few Big East schools have teams on the gridiron. One problem is that as some players get a little extra spending money, it may cause a rift with athletes in other sports programs.

Selective stipends can lead to "the creation of a financial divide among student-athletes on the campus," said Michael Buckner, president of Buckner Sports Law, a boutique sports law firm.

Even among those students that do receive stipends, the amounts can vary, and can be a big factor to students when they are deciding on an athletic program. Schools with more to spend can shell out more to their athletes, while smaller schools mete out more modest stipends.

A difference maker

Although the amounts are not uniform, Bozzella said that any level helps, as college athletes do not have the time to work a normal job and have costs that other students do not.

"There's a lot of expense to being a student athlete," said Seton Hall's Bozzella, who mentioned holiday trips back home and other transportation costs. "So this little bit of a stipend really goes a long way for what they're doing for their job, because this is their job."

At Marquette University in Wisconsin, Golden Eagles basketball players Luke Fischer and Duane Wilson know the struggle. They told CNBC the stipend money has certainly made a difference.

"It helps a lot with groceries and other needs like winter clothes," said Wilson, a red-shirt sophomore guard. Meanwhile, Fischer said the money is their sole source of income, since they cannot work during the season.

"It's really our only way of getting money," he added.