Last week, the NCAA Division I Board of Directors voted to allow conferences to increase athletic scholarships by $2,000 so that athletes can have spending money. With this plan, the NCAA acknowledges that student-athletes have little time to work due to the professional-like demands on their time. To many, athletes’ uncompensated labor seems like exploitation, especially when universities reap revenue, and a small handful, actual profit, from that labor. While I am sympathetic to the argument about exploited labor, I’m disappointed that the remedy isn’t instead to reduce the professional-like demands on student-athletes time. That, of course, would require putting an end to the commercialization of college sports and returning it to its truly amateur status. This new policy seems to suggest that ship has sailed.
But more on topic for this forum, the new policy also raises some Title IX issues that schools who increase their scholarships will have to address. Title IX regulations require schools to distribute athletic financial aid in the same proportion as the percentage of male and female athletic opportunities that it provides. 34 C.F.R. 106.37(c). For example, at the University of Michigan, 51% of athletic opportunities go to men. Men should receive around 51% of athletic financial aid, but they already receive a higher percentage — 55% — so technically they already do not comply. If they added $2000 to every full ride scholarship for the teams that are most likely candidates for this argument about exploited labor, i.e., football and men’s basketball, they would be even more out of compliance. Could Michigan afford to provide comparable financial aid to female athletes? I don’t know. But I certainly question why, if they can, they haven’t done so already. In total, male athletes receive almost $176 million more annually in athletic financial aid than female athletes, suggesting that Michigan is far from the only university already in the hole.
Alternatively, I wonder if these spending money stipends could be considered as something other than financial aid. Unlike existing athletic scholarships and grants-in-aid, this additional $2000 is not a discount from money that would otherwise be paid to the institution; it conceptually different in that it is money that the student can spend on whatever. That being the case, we wouldn’t measure compliance by requiring proportional distribution under the financial aid regulation cited above. Instead, I think, schools would have to treat these stipends like any other perq or amenity that comes with playing sports, like medical training, access to facilities and equipment, tutoring, etc., which the Title IX regulations require be equitably distributed among male and female athletes. 34 C.F.R. 106.41(c)(2)-(10).
But whether we conceive of these stipends as financial aid or some other kind of perq or amenity, the bottom line is still the same — schools can’t legally limit these to men’s sports, even if those are the ones that produce the most revenue. In world where already many (most?) Division I schools are out of compliance with the requirement to proportionally distribute athletic financial aid, I tend to view this new policy pessimistically, as likely to exacerbate Title IX violations rather than providing benefits to women’s sports.