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NCAA Faces Continuing Opposition on Increasing Aid to Players

When Mark Emmert gathered together more than 50 college presidents nearly two years ago to discuss ideas for reforming big-time sports, the group came to a pretty clear consensus on the need to increase aid to athletes.

With big money flowing in from TV contracts, and increasing amounts going toward coaches’ salaries and facilities, the idea of allowing Division I colleges to direct up to $2,000 more a year to certain players seemed to make sense.

But after a series of failed attempts to carry out the proposal, the NCAA is essentially back to the drawing board. The group charged with reviving the plan intends to gather feedback on a new set of ideas this summer, with the hope of gaining the approval of the Division I Board of Directors in October.

In some ways, the issue has become a referendum on Mr. Emmert, whose attempts to get things done quickly have alienated certain factions.

“There are some people who will oppose anything he supports, and that’s unfair,” says Sidney A. McPhee, president of Middle Tennessee State University. As head of the NCAA Student-Athlete Well-Being Working Group, Mr. McPhee has become chief arbiter of the stipend debate.

The issue has driven a wedge through an already divided Division I. Some institutions, including those that don’t compete in football at the highest levels, say they simply don’t have the revenue to offset the added costs. Others worry that making additional payments to players—no matter how small, and for whatever reason—threatens the amateur model.

Such opposition is one reason some of the wealthier programs are pushing for a further subdivision of the NCAA’s top level. If they can’t get their way on issues like this one, some observers say, they’ll just take their ball and go play somewhere else.

The climate has frustrated Mr. McPhee, who believes that even the less-wealthy programs have an obligation to make a priority of players and their unmet financial needs. “If you want to compete [in Division I],” he says, “you’ve got to step up.”

It’s also a matter of fairness, he says. Institutions increase aid packages for other students all the time, so why shouldn’t they do it for athletes too?

Over the past few months, Mr. McPhee has expanded his group to include more athletic directors, presidents, financial-aid directors, and others. In recent weeks the group has spent much time looking at the concept of aid and different ways to enhance it.

In a recent straw poll, the group agreed almost unanimously with the idea of allowing increased aid for athletes.

Still, Mr. McPhee is not optimistic that Division I members will ultimately support such a change.

“There is still continuing opposition to doing anything,” he says. “I’m afraid that whatever we do will have a high likelihood of an override.”

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