To pay or not to pay.
That’s the dilemma facing Randy Eaton, Western Carolina University director of athletics, and his Southern Conference counterparts, as well as other NCAA Division I schools outside of the so-called Power Five conferences, now that the NCAA has approved schools providing student-athletes with a cost-of-attendance stipend.
The cost of attendance, which is the true cost of attending school for a year, is determined by each institution’s financial aid office. Each school can pay its student-athletes the cost of attendance, minus the cost of a full athletics scholarship.
The Power Five conferences are the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten, Southeastern Conference, Big 12 and Pac 12.
For large universities with abundant revenue streams, the decision to pay student-athletes the stipend is a no-brainer, if for no other reason than they have to remain competitive with other institutions. But for mid-major schools like WCU that more often than not must resort to increasing student fees to help subsidize their programs, the choice is not so clear-cut. In September, the Southern Conference announced it would allow its members to award cost-of-attendance stipends beginning with the 2016-17 academic year. The exception is Chattanooga, which already had plans in motion to pay its men’s and women’s basketball athletes in 2015-16. Each school is allowed to spend up to $56,000 per academic year, with no athlete receiving more than $2,000.
“I think it’s the reality of what is the landscape of college athletics right now,” said Geoff Cabe, senior associate commissioner of the Southern Conference. “I think we’ve had great conversations in our league about the pros and cons and the economics of it. We’re obviously different than schools in the SEC or ACC that have large TV contracts and large revenue streams. We don’t have that. But at the same time, everybody recognizes there are some benefits to the student-athlete.”
After considering giving the cost-of-attendance stipends to men’s and women’s basketball players, Eaton opted not to issue them at WCU. How long he keeps that stance remains to be seen.
“We’re not in a position at our level to do it. I’m leaning toward not even talking about it for next year. But it’s a very fine line because I know for a fact we’ve already lost one women’s basketball recruit to Jacksonville because she got offered $3,200 in cost of attendance,” Eaton said.
“I’ve looked my coaches in the eye and said, ‘You’re going to have a kid that’s going to tell me they’re not going to come here because of $2,000? I don’t want that kid here and you need to feel that way, too.’ If all you’re doing is bidding on that kid, do you really want that kind of kid here? There’s something to be said about that train of thought,” he said. “I also understand I need that kid in order to win. But if that’s the case, where do you stop as a coach if your mentality is ‘I have to bid to get this kid?’ ”
Cabe said that he believes most student-athletes will continue to base their selection on criteria such as the institution itself, the area in which they choose to pursue a degree and the relationships they build with the coaching staffs while being recruited. But he does admit that cost of attendance will be another tool some schools can utilize.
Because the process is new, exactly what effect paying student-athletes stipends will have on mid-major schools is an unknown. In non-revenue sports, for example, schools like WCU could lose out on players they previously may have had a chance to sign.
Eaton said Virginia Tech plans to provide cost of attendance to all of its teams. Instead of giving those players on scholarship their cost-of-attendance money, the baseball team opted to use the money to provide additional scholarship for other players.
“If that were to happen, those are four or five kids that may have played at our level who are now going to go to Virginia Tech because they’ve got scholarship money,” Eaton said. “Before, they would have had to walk on and pay their own way, or play somewhere like Western who could give them 50 percent of a scholarship. That’s how it could negatively affect us.”
It also could have a negative impact internally. One of the things Eaton enjoys most about his athletics department is the camaraderie among the student-athletes. If WCU were to provide cost of attendance, it likely would be only for men’s and women’s basketball. Eaton worries what that would do to the fabric of the student-athlete community on campus.
“I don’t think I’ve ever worked at a place where our student-athletes were so close-knit,” Eaton said. “So I worry about it driving a wedge between our kids. What’s that do to the fabric and how those kids relate to each other? Not to mention, at our level, all of our sports lose money. But if we want to look at who’s generating the most money right now, by far it’s football. Hands down. If I were to give it to the basketball teams, and you’re on the football team and you know you’re generating twice as much as those two combined, what the hell? I think they would have some validity to view it in that manner.”
SoCon members VMI and Wofford also have said they will not provide cost-of-attendance stipends to their student-athletes. Eaton said The Citadel is likely leaning that way, too. WCU sport management professor Kadie Otto applauds such decisions.
“That’s nice to hear because the students are already heavily subsidizing the athletic program at Western,” said Otto, whose research involves analyzing major college athletics. “More generally, if you’re talking about doing stipends at schools like ours, I don’t think it’s a good idea. The schools that are big-time programs, it makes sense because they are generating revenue. But programs that are losing money year after year, it’s just not the right thing to do to be forking out additional money that essentially the students are paying for.
“There’s a trickle-down effect where schools like Western, and other mid-majors, feel for some reason they need to try and keep up with the Joneses, which is, quite frankly, impossible. I think and hope that the mid-majors look at their missions and look at their values and say, ‘Look, we’re never going to be these schools and we don’t want to be. Let’s be the best we can in our pond, if you will.’ ”
For now, Eaton plans to adopt a policy of watchful waiting. While the effects of paying student-athletes stipends remain uncertain, there is one thing that is very clear to Eaton.
“It’s just one hot mess, the whole thing,” he said.