In his 2018 expert witness testimony on behalf of Shawne Alston and the other former college athletes suing the NCAA over its cap on “educational-related benefits,” Dan Rascher, an economic consultant and sports management professor at the University of San Francisco, highlighted the association’s little-known Student Assistance Fund.
In a case based on the overarching theory that NCAA members were colluding to the financial detriment of athletes, it was perhaps strange to invoke an example of the NCAA doing right by them. The Student Assistance Fund, or SAF, had been created as a way for Division I schools to provide additional financial resources to athletes, helping cover unforeseen expenses over the course of their schooling. The fund’s money comes mostly from NCAA March Madness revenues, which are then distributed to member institutions by way of their conferences.
Over the years, the SAF—an umbrella term for two reserves, the Special Assistance Fund and Student Athlete Opportunity Fund—has grown larger and more flexible, thanks in large part to a previous antitrust lawsuit, White v. NCAA, over limits to what schools could offer athletes in grants-in-aid. Schools’ specific SAF allocations are based on two different calculation formulas that factor in the institutions’ total number of Pell grant recipients, athletic scholarships and sport sponsorships.
But, as Rascher explained, the SAF also shows how tenuous the NCAA’s claim to amateurism really was. In researching how schools spent those monies, Rascher found all kinds of purchases that well exceeded the athletes’ cost-of-attendance remittances and had little or nothing to do with their education. In essence, the SAF was acting as a mechanism of pay-to-play, albeit restricted to the limited funds available.
“From the NCAA’s perspective, I imagine the thought went through their head that no good deed goes unpunished,” Rascher said in a recent interview.
Nevertheless, Rascher’s SAF argument proved salient through the Alston trial and the appeal process.
In its 9-0 ruling for the athletes last month, the Supreme Court specifically cited the SAF as among the reasons why the NCAA’s cap on “education-related benefits” was an unreasonable violation of U.S. antitrust laws. That decision, accompanied by Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s concurring opinion impugning the foundation of amateurism, has now led to a host of yet-unanswered questions about how schools will be able to spend money on athletes.
The Alston ruling could directly change how schools allocate their SAF spending. Earlier this month, Sportico reported on how the case might open the door for schools to pay for athlete loss-of-value insurance out of their sports budgets. Until now, institutions have been paying for this coverage out of their student assistance fund monies.
Stony Brook athletic director Shawn Heilbron, who chairs the NCAA’s Student-Athlete Experience Committee, says college sports leaders must continue to maximize the fund’s flexibility for the benefit of athletes.
But Ramogi Huma, the executive director of the National College Players Association, says that the NCAA may already be too flexible on this front, allowing schools to tap into the SAF to pay for things he argues ought to come out of their general athletic department budgets. Huma notes, for example, that the NCAA provides that SAF money can go to reimburse out-of-pocket medical expenses that are not otherwise covered by an athlete’s health insurance.
“Every school should be able to afford to pay out-of-pocket medical expenses,” said Huma, who proposes a rule mandating that schools cover these costs, but not with SAF monies.
Through a public records request, Sportico obtained documents enumerating how Big Ten conference members spent their SAF monies during the pandemic-interrupted 2019-20 academic year. According to the documents, Indiana spent more than half its SAF ($314,707) on out-of-pocket medical, dental or vision expenses, while the rest of the Big Ten schools reported spending a combined $246,538 on that category. (An IU spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.) Cumulatively, of the roughly $9 million in SAF monies made available to Big Ten schools during this period, $2.4 million went to what were classified as health and safety expenses.
The NCAA created the Special Assistance Fund in 1999, after signing a $6 billion deal with CBS for the television rights to its men’s basketball tournament. Further infused with cash from its bundled rights deal with CBS and ESPN, the NCAA created the Student-Athlete Opportunity Fund in 2003. In 2008, as part of its settlement agreement in White v. NCAA, the NCAA effectively merged those funds while committing to spend $218 million on the SAOF over the next six years.
Big West Conference CFO Ben Jay, who previously served in a similar role for what is now the Pac-12, recalled the power conferences “spit-balling” about using the increase in special assistance monies to give athletes stipends. “It didn’t come to fruition,” said Jay. “People were afraid that... not all the schools could fund the number of grant-in-aid [scholarships] that their fellow schools could. They were afraid of recruiting inequity.”
Currently, schools are forbidden from using SAF monies on cash stipends to athletes.
As part of its 2021 revenue distribution plan, the NCAA allocated roughly $88 million of its $613 budget for the SAF—with the Special Assistance Fund receiving $18,854,480 and the SAOF getting $68,775,004. (Some SAOF money comes from the infraction penalties paid by schools to the NCAA in the prior year.)
The funds are not supposed to replace “existing budget items.” As such, the NCAA forbids the monies be used to pay for the salaries or benefits of athletic department employees; capital improvements; or what it terms “athletic-related development opportunities.”
In 2013, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported on a Big Ten document it obtained, which identified various SAF expenditures that did not seem to directly benefit athletes, including hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on parking permits and “team-building” activities.
Sportico found that, as of 2020, several Big Ten schools were still allocating their SAF resources in a similar manner. Michigan State reported spending $173,000 for on-campus athlete parking, while Michigan spent $130,000 on “team-building activities.” While SAF money is not permitted for facility improvements, Purdue put a decent chunk toward furniture upgrades, spending $38,101.75 to replace worn chairs in the Brees Student-Athlete Academic Center.
The Big Ten documents also show a number of payments that had nothing to do with education-related expenses, reinforcing the point made in Rascher's Alston testimony.
Michigan State reported spending $21,562.72 on the funeral expenses for a football player’s parent. In June, the school announced that an unnamed player’s father had died from COVID complications. “Michigan State consulted with the Big Ten Conference who confirmed paying for funeral expenses was a permissible expense,” an MSU spokesman told Sportico.
Told of the Spartans’ spending, Huma said: “It is good to see a player get real support, especially because a player is restrained, and it is good to see another example of how amateurism is a farce. A number of these players wouldn't need that assistance if they were able to get their fair market value. So, I don’t want to give too much credit, either, because this is a system that forces players into poverty.”
Meanwhile, Indiana spent a total of $8,000 to reimburse athletes who experienced “financial hardship due to phone scam,” while Ohio State spent $706.99 to replace an athlete’s phone that was “accidentally broken” by the head coach. Asked about what precipitated the incident, an OSU spokesperson declined to provide details.
Huma says many college athletes are still unaware that the SAF exists, even though it has now been around, in its present form, for more than a decade. He recommends that more schools follow the approach Nebraska takes, allocating a set amount of SAF funds that each of its athletes can access over the course of an academic year, including walk-ons who have been on a team roster for at least one semester.
Nebraska provides athletes with a list of permitted expenditures, from furniture to household necessities.
Jamie Vaughn, Nebraska’s executive associate AD for compliance, said the university has, over the last decade, modified its SAF program in anticipation of the changes that might come through the various antitrust lawsuits against the NCAA. For example, in 2015, Nebraska became one of the first college athletic departments to automatically provide free laptops to its athletes, as well as offer $7,500 post-eligibility awards for Huskers athletes to use toward graduate school or participate in internships. Because of this, Vaughn doesn’t anticipate a significant change to Nebraska’s SAF program going forward. Other schools, however, may well be inclined to shift their spending priorities.
“We are still learning and asking a lot of questions,” said Heilbron. “I think the student-athletes are going to be the ones to drive the bus on this.”
Additional reporting by Eben Novy-Williams