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December 23, 2003

Perception of paltry compensation for student-athletes

[This is excerpted from the third piece in a series by USA TODAY taking an occasional look at college athletics and its future. This article tackles athlete welfare.]

From TV rights to its men's basketball tournament, the NCAA averages better than half a billion dollars a year. That does not include payouts from the 28 football bowls, which exceed $184 million.

It's numbers like those that arch the eyebrows of state lawmakers and other activists who cite the increasing money-making capacity of intercollegiate athletics, then point to what they say is paltry compensation for student-athletes.

The NCAA has impressive figures too. Beyond scholarships worth as much as $40,000 a year, the association is funneling $750 million over 11 years into three funds designed to benefit athletes.

The issue has intensified since the NCAA struck a stunning 11-year, $6.2 billion basketball TV deal four years ago. Now, the partners in football's BCS want to extend an arrangement worth $600 million in its first eight seasons.

Against that economic backdrop, state legislators have endorsed a stipend for University of Nebraska football players, and lawmakers in California, Texas and Iowa are weighing their own athlete-welfare measures.

The NCAA has set up the Student-Athlete Special Assistance Fund, targeting needy athletes. It is projected at almost $11 million this year. The number of recipients — from among roughly 150,000 Div. I athletes — rose almost sixfold over 11 years to 25,000-plus in 2002-03.

This year, the NCAA is socking another $17 million into the new Student-Athlete Opportunity Fund, applicable to an array of personal needs. Scheduled to grow by 13% annually, it will contain $57 million by the final year of the CBS/ESPN contract in 2013. The association also hands $50,000 annually to each of its Div. I schools for academic support.

A little more than a quarter of the $10.4 million in Special Assistance funds handed out last year went for medical care. More than two-thirds ($7.2 million) was used for clothing.

Then-NCAA President Cedric Dempsey sensed changing sentiments when the association struck its multibillion-dollar TV contract. In January 2000 he called for significant increases in funds earmarked for athletes, insisting they “must be among the first beneficiaries.”

The athletes have long gotten scholarships, equipment and apparel, complimentary game admissions for family and friends, tutoring and other academic support.

Still, players see what's in it for everybody else. More coaches are drawing million-dollar salaries, including the money that shoe and apparel companies pay for having teams outfitted in their logo-branded gear. Schools and conferences are landing corporate sponsors. Jerseys bearing the players' numbers hang in souvenir shops.

Maurice Clarett, star of Ohio State's national championship team last year, created a stir in the days leading up to the Fiesta Bowl, alluding to the riches of intercollegiate athletics while expressing resentment that OSU didn't buy him a plane ticket to fly home to attend funeral of a boyhood friend who'd been shot. School officials said he could have used the Special Assistance Fund but failed to fill out necessary paperwork.

(USA TODAY 12-23-03)