College athletes say they need pay to cover basic costs of living

Officials mull cost-of-attendance stipend, but questions abound about gender and interschool fairness

Dominic Sylvester of University of Alabama-Birmingham warms up before a game against Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tenn.
Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

Dominic Sylvester, an offensive lineman for the University of Alabama at Birmingham, is miserly when it comes to his pair of dress shoes.

They are wingtips, size 15, and he wears them to church, comes back to his dorm room and takes them off right away to preserve them. They are starting to get that old-shoe flex, and he can feel the ground more and more on the bottoms of his feet, just like with his cheap pair of tennis shoes.

“A good pair of shoes for me, which are hard to find because of my size, can cost $150,” said Sylvester, an accounting major, who is 6 feet 4, 315 pounds. “You make them last and last. I don’t have a lot of extra money to buy new ones. I’ve burned the rubber out. They don’t have holes in them, but they are getting there.”

Sylvester is a Division I football player whose tuition, books, dorm room and meal plan are paid for with his athletic scholarship, which is worth between $26,000 and $28,000. But it is the miscellaneous expenses — like new shoes — that have put him and other players in the center of the debate going on at the NCAA Convention this week in San Diego.

There is a gap between what the athletic scholarship provides and what the actual cost of attendance at college usually demands. At UAB, he said, that gap is about $3,000.

Many Division I athletic directors and football and basketball coaches want to add a stipend of several thousand dollars to an athletic scholarship to make up the difference. But others do not want to provide the money because they insist their departments cannot handle the extra expense.

The public has termed the issue “pay for play,” and many believe it would lead to the ruination of the amateur sports model. The athletes roll their eyes in dismay at the misperception.

“Absolutely, I’m all for it. We could use the money,” Sylvester said. “Being from out of state, I had about $1,100 in travel expenses last year. Even getting the Pell Grant, there is not a lot of money left over, say, if you need a new pair of shoes, or a suit for special occasions, or even to go bowling.”

The Pell is a need-based grant, provided by the federal government. Sylvester receives $2,250 a semester in Pell Grant funds.

Like many Division I football and basketball players, Sylvester doesn’t rely much on help from his folks. His dad is unemployed with a medical disability, and his mother works for the county social services office in Horseheads, N.Y. Their income is about $50,000 a year.

“I try not to ask for money from home,” Sylvester said.

No time to work

Chris Conley, a wide receiver at the University of Georgia, who is the Southeastern Conference student-athlete advisory representative to the NCAA, said not all students in need are eligible for a Pell Grant. He is one of those students caught in the middle between family income and the threshold to qualify for a grant. The proposed Full Cost of Attendance stipend would be like finding lost treasure.

So in the meantime, why not get a job?

Georgia's Chris Conley scores on an 87-yard reception against Nebraska at the Capital One Bowl.
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

“When a coach is concerned about job security and a school wants to win a championship,” said Conley, “if it is a large-revenue sport, you are pushed to put more time into the athletic side of things, and it doesn’t shorten the amount of time you have to spend on school. You are putting extra hours in the film room, extra hours in the weight room, extra hours getting treatment.

“You end up doing all those things, and you get back to your room at such a late time, you need to study. There is no time for a job.”

UAB, which is part of Conference USA, is considered a mid-major school, with fewer resources to spend on athletics than Georgia, which had athletic revenues of $91.6 million in 2012, compared with $28.1 million for UAB. In 2011, after the NCAA board of directors voted to allow a Cost of Attendance stipend, the entire Division I membership voted to override the board and defeat the stipend because many small schools said that, among other things, they could not afford it.

The issue is back again in San Diego as the five major Division I conferences —Southeastern, Pac-12, Big Ten, Atlantic Coast and Big 12 — seek more autonomy and want “permission” to enact their own student-athlete welfare rules.

Trae Golden of Georgia Tech dribbles through Pittsburgh defenders.
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Trae Golden, a star guard for Georgia Tech’s basketball team, said the stipend for Full Cost of Attendance is clearly a student-athlete welfare issue. He has walked into the dining hall with his meal-plan card but has found cheeseburgers and chicken tenders on the menu and will not eat.

“That’s not food you should eat the day before a game,” Golden said. “You have to have money to go out and find a healthy meal that is better suited to your training and keep your body together. You just have to watch what you eat.

“Then there is the mental aspect of eating in the same place day after day after day.”

Golden is 22. There are times he wants to have money for a date or other social activity. His mother lives in the Atlanta area, he said, and “will help me out sometimes, but I’m 22 years old — she expects me to learn how to take care of myself.”

Questions of fairness

Some athletic administrators and coaches have said athletes who get the Pell money spend it on shiny rims for the wheels of their cars or the latest electronic entertainment gadget. The athletes squander the money, they have said, then let professional sports agents or boosters get close and pass them cash, which is against NCAA regulations.

“There are stories of guys who waste the money,” said Conley, “but I have friends who get Pell money and send it home to their mothers to feed brothers and sisters.”

“I have friends who do the same thing,” Golden added.

Deeper into the debate is Title IX. If the football player receives a stipend to meet Full Cost of Attendance, is the women’s volleyball player also entitled to one?

Nancy Hogshead-Makar, an attorney and senior director of advocacy for the Women’s Sports Foundation, said that if the stipend is part of the scholarship for men, then women have the same right to it.

“I have something from the (federal) Office of Civil Rights that says the same thing,” she said. “I have discussed this with the NCAA as well.”

There is also the question of what schools are doing with the $72 million special-assistance fund set up by the NCAA. The money is supposed to be used for athletes who have vital costs not covered by an athletics scholarship, like travel home for a family member’s illness, or a warm coat.

Conley said Georgia, which is one of the most proactive schools in terms of student-athlete welfare, has a special-assistance fund athletes have dipped into. Conley’s father is retired from the Air Force, and his mother is a teacher of English as a second language. He said there are times he does not have the gas money to drive home two hours and will not bother his parents for the cash. He said he has teammates who stay at school for months because of the expense of travel.

“The fortunate thing is there a student opportunity fund that some people are allowed to reach into and they are allowed to have a clothes allowance,” Conley said. “It is for all student-athletes.”

Regulations, equations

So how can the NCAA regulate the stipend that each school gives a student who is an athlete? There is a fear that wealthy schools will offer money over and above Cost of Attendance as a recruiting tool. 

Mark Kantrowitz, senior vice president and publisher of — which helps families plan and pay for college — said Cost of Attendance varies from school to school, so it cannot be standardized by the NCAA. He said each school publishes its full cost of attendance for all students, not just athletes, and that could be used to calculate the gap between the athletic scholarship and the COA. 

The legislation for Full Cost of Attendance, if approved by membership, likely won’t be put into effect until late summer.

In the meantime, UAB’s Sylvester will have to save his money for some of those miscellaneous expenses that are driving the debate.

When school ends in May, he will have three weeks off and wants to fly home to New York to see his family. Players are then required to be back at school for “voluntary” off-season workouts starting June 1. Sylvester’s brother graduates from high school the weekend of June 14. So if he wants to go home, it means buying another plane ticket.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he said. “I need to be there for him, so I need to figure out the money.”

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