Extra Benefits: The Family Travel Stipend and Where the NCAA Goes From Here

Seth Traub

Seth P. Traub

Here in Tampa, Florida, the streets are beginning to fill with the navy, red, black, gold, and green colors of the four teams who made it to the Women’s Final Four.  And this year, travel to the marquee event—as well as to the Men’s Final Four in Indianapolis—is a little easier for the families of the players involved in the biggest college basketball games of the season.  Back in January, the NCAA approved a waiver that allowed parents or guardians to receive a $3,000 travel stipend, and an additional $1,000 for players who advance to the championship game.  As part of the waiver, the NCAA also allowed the College Football Playoff to pay for the parents or guardians of Ohio State and Oregon players to travel to Arlington, Texas for the national championship game.

NCAA rules would normally prohibit schools or any other party from paying for such travel expenses, but criticism of the prohibition has been widespread.  Louisville coach Rick Pitino’s story about how Payton Siva’s family had to drive from Seattle to Atlanta to watch Siva in the 2013 Final Four in Atlanta (and ultimately win the championship) because the family could not afford to fly was widely publicized in October, and similar stories have made the rounds over the years. NCAA president Mark Emmert said in January, “Championship experiences like the Final Four create memories of a lifetime for student-athletes, and we want to make sure their families are there to support and celebrate with them.”

The question now is whether to make the waiver permanent, and how far to expand it.  The NCAA makes more than $700 million per year from the television rights to the men’s tournament, and the College Football Playoff similarly makes hundreds of millions annually for its television and media contracts.  But other championships don’t bring in that kind of money, so expanding the program may not be so easy. The men’s and women’s College World Series—televised nationally as part of ESPN’s television contract with the NCAA—may be the next best bet, but what about other traditional non-revenue generating sports?

Another alternative is expanding the waiver beyond just allowing the organizing entity—the College Football Playoff for football and the NCAA for most other sports—to pay the travel expenses by letting individual schools provide for the stipends.  This additional allowance would certainly dovetail into the larger hot-button topic of general compensation for student-athletes.  Also in January, the five power football conferences voted to redefine an athletic scholarship to cover incidental “costs of attendance,” effectively approving additional compensation for student-athletes over and above traditional scholarships.

These two NCAA decisions in January came just months after Judge Claudia Wilken, in the Northern District of California, ruled against the NCAA in a lawsuit that challenged the NCAA’s limits on what Division I football and men’s basketball players could receive for playing sports and the use of the names, images and likenesses on television broadcasts and in video games.  Judge Wilken ruled that agreements among colleges not to offer any football or basketball recruit more than the value of a full grant-in-aid scholarship for athletic services constituted an unreasonable restraint of trade.  O’Bannon v. National Collegiate Athletic Association, 7 F.Supp.3d 955 (N.D. Cal. 2014).  The NCAA appealed the decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, where a three-judge panel heard oral arguments in March.

Ultimately, where a line is to be drawn for paying student-athletes or compensating their families to attend championship or other marquee events remains open for debate.  Coaches participating in this year’s Men’s Final Four are already on record as wanting to expand the travel stipend.  Kentucky coach John Calipari was quoted as being in favor of a stipend for every team in all rounds of the tournament. Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan similarly said he’d like the waiver to go a step further and allow for stipends for the Big Ten Tournament.

So while it is now a little cheaper for parents to travel to see their sons or daughters play in potentially the biggest basketball or football games of their careers, how far the NCAA takes its new-found generosity, and how these decisions effect the NCAA”s policies on amateurism, remains to be seen. Moreover, if lawsuits continue to be filed and decisions made consistent with Judge Wilken in O’Bannon, and if conferences continue to seek more autonomy from the NCAA,  payment to student-athletes may be taken out of the hands of the NCAA altogether.