Increasing grants-in-aid not so simple

Almost as soon as NCAA President Mark Emmert said Monday that he will propose that conferences be allowed to give members the ability to increase grants-in-aid to student athletes by up to $2,000, the discussion of the “haves vs. the have-nots” started.

Boise State President Robert Kustra spoke boldly about Emmert’s feelings that some conferences would participate while others would choose not to: "The haves will, and the have-nots will try -- I'll try -- but many will not be able to.”

The issue boils down to -- what else -- money. Conventional thinking goes that the six automatic-qualifying Bowl Championship Series conferences would move almost immediately to increase the grants-in-aid because the millions of dollars in revenue generated by their successful football and basketball programs would make it relatively easy to do so. So it’s easy to assume, then, that the lesser-funded, non-qualifying conferences might not be so high on Emmert’s proposal.

Simple, right? Not so fast.

Conference USA schools -- members of a non-automatic qualifying conference -- actually seem to want to play along: Conference USA's Executive Associate Commissioner Judy MacLeod told me the conference is behind the proposal. Tulsa and Central Florida university officials also say they would make the change.

But even some officials at larger -- and more flush -- athletic departments like those at LSU and Texas A&M say the proposal merits careful thought.

LSU Chancellor Michael Martin, speaking at a panel after Emmert’s comments yesterday, said, “ ... right now, we're very sensitive on our campus to the fact that the faculty have gone three years without any salary adjustment. And then to say that every student athlete gets $2,000 at the same time that we may have to go another year without one, only builds up that tension between faculty leadership and the administration and athletics. So I want to think carefully about the unintended consequences of expanding additional resources on athletes at a time when the rest of the institution has been so heavily taxed by budget cuts."

LSU’s athletic department is one of the handful that can balance its budget without assistance from the university, taxpayers or student fees. The athletic department has also sent more than $30 million back to the university over the past decade (in addition to funding grants-in-aid), which has supported projects like classroom construction and renovation.

Texas A&M athletics director Bill Byrne said he is concerned the proposal might not help all athletes equally if it only applies to athletes on full scholarships, which is uncertain.

“If they’re really interested in helping all athletes and not just [those in] revenue-producing sports, then they’d go to full cost of attendance for all athletes, not just those that generate revenue,” he said.

Byrne said any such proposal also must be examined within the context of other changes the NCAA is considering. Among those are a 10 percent reduction in games in every sport and a reduction in football scholarships from 85 to 80 at the FBS level and from 63 to 60 at the FCS level. Scholarship reductions from 13 to 12 in men’s basketball and 15 to 13 in women’s basketball are also being considered.

The scholarship reductions would save money and be able to help fund the grant-in-aid increases, Byrne said, but the loss of home games in major sports could be costly to an athletic department. On average, Texas A&M took in $3.8 million per home football game during the 2009 season, according to Texas A&M's Statement of Revenue and Expenses for 2010. Offset by gameday expenses, the loss of a home game would have cost Texas A&M $3.65 million.

Byrne said the grants-in-aid increases would likely cost his department $300,000 to $600,000, depending on whether they are granted only to athletes on full-scholarship (and whether that would include equivalency sports or not) or to all athletes. He said his department would save approximately $160,000 annually if the proposed reductions in scholarships are enacted, but could also lose over $3.5 million in revenue if the number of contests is reduced.

When asked if the 10 percent reduction in contests was something presidents would actually support, University of Louisville Athletic Director Tom Jurich seemed to share Byrne’s concern that they would. Neither commented about their own school’s president, but both recognized it as a real possibility. Jurich noted that not everyone believes going to a 12-game schedule has been beneficial, especially when the money spent on guaranteed payments to schools outside of the FBS is considered.

It certainly seems as though conferences and member institutions have a lot to think about in the coming months.