A PRICE TO PLAY | Full-ride scholarships far from free

Full ride is far from free; scholarships fall short of covering players’ costs at Division I schools

August 16, 2011 

Editor’s note: This is the third installment of a six-part Bradenton Herald series on the state of college athletics.

When Tyrone Williams was helping Nebraska win back-to-back national championships and twice earning first team All-Big Eight honors in the mid-1990s, he was a virtual prisoner of NCAA rules.

In four years, the Manatee High product returned home only twice because he could not afford travel expenses.

During holidays, he was not allowed to accept dinner from a local family who might be considered boosters, which is just about everybody in the football-crazed town of Lincoln, Neb.

The NCAA ruled in effect that a healthy meal in the home of a well-to-do Nebraskan would give then-head coach Tom Osborne a recruiting advantage.

Williams was the victim of a myth that still permeates college football recruiting: “full-ride” scholarships cover all the costs incurred by a student-athlete.

Parents, told their sons were receiving a “full scholarship” to play football, often believed expenses would be minimal, like weekend money for a movie.

Eventually, they would come to understand the semantics of college sports.

It can be an expensive eye-opener.

The NCAA does not allow universities to offer scholarships to athletes that cover the full “cost of attendance.”

That has in effect created a system in which many football players are actually paying money to play for a school that is making millions of dollars off them and their teammates.

For example:

* Southeast High grad Terron Sanders, who finished up his career at the University of Florida last season, said his family spent at least $400 per month to help him get through school.

* Southeast linebacker Brett Timmons said his family spent about $15,000 during his four years at Tulane, where he played on the school’s undefeated football team in 1998.

* One of Williams’ two trips home came after the Orange Bowl, when he got a ride home after helping the Huskers get to the national championship game.

* Palmetto High grad Chris Smith said he received about $5,000 annually from his family during his two years playing for Northern Illinois, a career that ended last fall.

* Southeast grad Julius Wilson said he couldn’t have made it at University of Alabama-Birmingham without his Pell Grant, but even then he sometimes had to call home for money.

True cost of attendance

The NCAA estimates athletes on full scholarship pay an average of $2,500 to $5,000 a year on out-of-pocket expenses to their full cost of attendance. A 2009 joint study by the National College Players Association and Ithaca College Graduate Program in Sport Management said it’s much more in many cases.

NCAA President Mark Emmert said there is legitimate concern there are still some unfunded costs that are associated with attending college. His organization has focused on those problems.

In the past, the NCAA took money away from athletes by using a student’s Pell Grant money to replace part of his grant-in-aid athletic scholarship. A Pell Grant is a federal subsidy for poor students.

Former Kansas University track coach Bob Timmons called the policy “Robin Hood in reverse” because the NCAA was taking money from poor kids and giving it to other grant-in-aid athletes, who may come from families who are multi-millionaires.

The maximum Pell Grant award to an individual for the 2011-2012 school year is $5,500.

Under recent changes, students will not be able to receive two Pell Grant awards during any one particular school year and will thus not be able to receive a summer Pell Grant if they already received a full award during the previous spring, winter or fall semesters. Some say that would add a burden to football players because a significant number of them at the Division I level attend summer school.

It is estimated federal budget cuts have reduced eligibility for Pell Grants by 1.5 million students. College athletic departments across the country say that will have a major impact on them.

A student-athlete is not eligible to participate in intercollegiate athletics if he or she receives financial aid that exceeds the value of the school’s cost of attendance, according to NCAA bylaws. There are certain items that do not count against the student-athlete’s limit.

Many student-athletes cannot meet the costs of attendance without aid, and for the many who cannot qualify for Pell Grants and other assistance, they have to find other means to support themselves.

Williams said Pell Grant money he received helped him survive, but it fell way short of providing him the basic necessities like food and clothing.

“After my first year at Nebraska, I received a Pell Grant that was about $1,200, but that wasn’t much,” said Williams, who finished his Cornhusker career in 1996. “I was broke most of the time. There was a family that ‘adopted’ me and gave me food and stuff you needed like clothes. My first year there I was in a survival mode. You bond with a couple of guys and you can always find something to eat. For the money we generated, we shouldn’t have had to do that.”

Sanders didn’t qualify for Pell Grant money, which put more of a burden on his family and the families of his teammates in the same situation.

“There has to be some way to increase what players get. If they don’t have financial support from parents, they are going to struggle,” Sanders said. “I feel that is one of the main causes for players taking money from agents and violating rules. With gas, food, cell phone bills, clothes and rent, my parents definitely helped out a lot. What you get in scholarship money is just enough to pay rent.”

Sanders lived off campus in Gainesville and said he received a check for $1,400 every two months, which he used to pay rent and groceries and all other incidentals such cell phone bills, electricity, etc.

“There should be a way to add money to that scholarship, especially when you have won two national championships for the school. There is a lot of money coming in, but a lot of players aren’t seeing it,” Sanders said.

Timmons said survival often depends on a player’s creativity.

“You get three squares a day, but as athletes you are working crazy hours and you have to find something to eat, especially at night. We used to buy pizzas off credit cards,” Timmons said. “When someone had money they took care of each other. We learned the barter system. I would get stuff from home and share it with my teammates.”

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