Hector Amezcua / hamezcua@sacbee.com

"There is a lot of pressure that comes with being a student athlete," says the Kings' Jason Thompson, an ex-Rider University star.

Bill would guarantee 5-year athletic scholarships, offer stipends

Published: Monday, Apr. 1, 2013 - 12:29 am | Page 1A

When Sacramento Kings coach Keith Smart debated pursuing coaching in the National Basketball Association or college athletics, there was a lump in his throat that sent him to the professional ranks.

Smart said he knew he couldn't keep himself from violating national collegiate rules against giving money to a player in financial trouble or buying winter clothes for athletes without.

He remembers struggling himself in college, despite being on a full-ride scholarship. His mother sent him $20 a week for things like food and incidentals, but it came up short when he needed a winter coat or a quick flight home.

"My little cousin passed away and I couldn't go to the services," said Smart, who launched the game-winning shot in 1987 to win the National Collegiate Athletic Association championship for the Indiana University Hoosiers.

Stories similar to Smart's have been cited by the National College Players Association as reasons the NCAA, a non-profit membership organization that governs collegiate sports, should allow universities to better compensate players.

As the collegiate sporting world focuses on March Madness, perhaps the NCAA's highest profile competition, a bill making its way through California's Legislature is calling for just that. It's also creating concerns that the proposed legislation could affect the NCAA eligibility of state universities.

Assembly Bill 475 would require all public universities and colleges in California that offer full athletic scholarships and receive media and licensing revenues in excess of $20 million to provide each athlete $3,600 stipends and guarantee full-ride athletic scholarships for five years, instead of the year-to-year guarantee.

Currently, only two California public universities fit this media revenue threshold – UCLA and UC Berkeley. The stipend would be paid for out of the university's media rights and licensing revenues.

"When you have the kind of money that college athletics make, this shouldn't be a problem," said Assemblywoman Cheryl Brown, D-San Bernardino, who is carrying the bill. "They should say here is your five-year scholarship. Here are the tutors you need. The $3,600 stipend, that's toothbrushes and other things."

Brown said her bill, which is sponsored by the National College Players Association, is an attempt to improve college graduation rates among athletes. She said full-ride scholarships come up short in paying for the entire cost of attendance.

The bill piggybacks on a law passed last year called the Student Athlete Bill of Rights, which, among other things, requires big-time college sports programs in California to offer scholarship athletes equivalent aid for up to five years if they are incapacitated by injury or illness resulting from their sport. The law currently applies to UCLA, Stanford, USC and UC Berkeley.

Schools originally opposed the Student Athlete Bill of Rights, saying it was too expensive and would put them at a competitive disadvantage given that the provisions did not apply to all schools, just those earning more than $10 million in media revenue each year.

"I think as far as we are concerned, we are comfortable with the NCAA rules and regulations that exist," said Terry Wanless, athletic director at Sacramento State, which is not directly affected by the law or Brown's bill.

Both Cal and UCLA, who compete in the Pacific-12 Conference, declined to comment on the bill.

UCLA referred calls to the UC Office of the President. UC spokeswoman Brooke Converse said the bill is still being reviewed. Erik Hardenbergh, the Pac-12's vice president of public affairs, said his office has no comment at the moment.

NCAA officials could not be reached for comment.

Wanless said the current bill is addressing an issue that rarely comes up while creating a new one. He said there is statistically a small number of athletes whose scholarships are not renewed due to their level of play.

"Is it possible? Yes," Wanless said. "But most of the time it's academic or character issues."

Wanless said that providing stipends to athletes already receiving free tuition, fees and room and board is not warranted and creates financial hardships for athletic departments. He said needy students can already apply for Pell Grants that award up to $5,000 on top of a full-ride athletic scholarship.

"Only 50 (collegiate athletic departments) nationally actually operate in the black," Wanless said. "It's not like there are tons of dollars out there. Then there is a gender equity issue."

Wanless said the bill could jeopardize NCAA membership for California schools.

"That has to be a concern for everyone involved," he said. "You don't want to lose NCAA membership because of a state law."

The bill's proposals nevertheless remain popular with athletes and former athletes, who argue that their contributions bring in millions for their big-time sports programs, particularly in basketball and football. The NCAA men's basketball tournament and the hype around March Madness bring in more than $770 million a year for the NCAA.

The NCAA distributes $450 million to participating schools and conferences.

The Pac-12 signed a 12-year, $3 billion television contract that reportedly will send $21 million per year to each of the universities in the conference, including UCLA and Berkeley.

"All of the new revenue created in the past few decades has gone to coaches' salaries and facilities," said Ramogi Huma, a former UCLA linebacker who founded the National College Players Association, which is sponsoring the bill.

Huma said his hope is that the bill will create a domino affect.

"Other schools would follow because they don't want it to be perceived that they are falling behind in terms of recruitment," Huma said. "We see this affecting the entire nation, not just UCLA and Cal."

Kings power forward Jason Thompson, who starred at Rider University, said athletes work long hours to compete at the elite level. The only source of income is from family, and not everyone is blessed with parents who can contribute, he said.

He said stipends and five-year scholarship guarantees are a step in the right direction.

"There is a lot of pressure that comes with being a student athlete, and these things help," Thompson said.

Call Melody Gutierrez, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5521. Follow her on Twitter @melodygutierrez.

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