Andy Gottesman / Lantern multimedia editor
Need contacts? Need a couple of dollars to travel home for a funeral? Need to rent computer equipment for a class?
If you’re an athlete and meet certain qualifications, the Athletic Department’s Special Assistance Fund has you covered.
In a recent interview with The Lantern, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith recalled one notable recipient of the little-known pot of money allocated to OSU athletes.
“One of the greatest moments was when Evan Turner was drafted and he went up on that stage and smiled,” Smith said. “And I remember the conversation that our trainers and everybody had with him (when he got to OSU) about putting braces on his teeth. We paid for that.”
The Special Assistance Fund is designed to help athletes cover expenses in times of need. It lets the athlete’s conference pay for expenses that normally would be NCAA extra benefit violations.
The NCAA distributes the Special Assistance Fund, but Division I conferences administer the money “to assist student-athletes in meeting their financial needs that arise in conjunction with participation in intercollegiate athletics, enrollment in an academic curriculum or that recognize academic achievement as well as assisting student-athletes with special financial needs,” according to an NCAA memorandum.
About $54 million went to Division I conferences for the 2009-10 school year, according to the memo. OSU received $516,004 as a part of the $3.6 million distributed to the 11 schools in the Big Ten.
The Special Assistance Fund was created in 1991 and expanded in 2008 after a court ruling favored former Stanford football player Jason White in his antitrust suit filed against the NCAA in 2006.
White, along with former UCLA football player Brian Polak, former San Francisco basketball player Jovan Harris and former Texas-El Paso basketball player Chris Craig, argued that “restricting a scholarship to the cost of tuition, books, housing and meals was an unlawful restraint of trade.”
In a settlement, the NCAA agreed to make $218 million available to Division I schools through the 2012-13 school year for athletes who can prove a financial or academic need.
Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College in Massachusetts, worries about what will happen after the settlement expires.
The Special Assistance Fund “is a positive, it’s a good thing,” Zimbalist said. “But the problem is, No. 1, that deal that was made as a result of a lawsuit only requires NCAA to continue this for another two years. After that, there’s no requirement. I’m concerned because I think the NCAA might be able to buy a way out.”
To be eligible for the money, athletes can show financial need through a variety of channels, such as proving that they are eligible for a federal Pell Grant, which are targeted to help students from low-income families.
A student can apply for up to $500 per academic year to pay for clothing, travel expenses from campus to home, expendable academic course supplies up to $40, rental costs for certain course-related equipment, medical and dental costs not covered by another insurance program and costs linked to a family emergency.
Costs that aren’t covered include entertainment expenditures and the “purchase of insurance to protect against the loss of potential future professional sports earnings,” according to the University of Michigan Compliance website.
Doug Archie, OSU associate athletics director for compliance and camps, said the money is crucial to athletes when they are in dire need of financial help and have nowhere else to turn.
“It’s meant for unusual circumstances. If a student-athlete has a death in the family, the fund could cover their trip home,” Archie said. In October, “a young lady had her apartment broken into. Thanks to the fund, we were able to cover the cost of her course-related materials that were stolen.”
Smith said the Athletic Department used the Special Assistance Fund to help former OSU defensive tackle Nader Abdallah and his family after Hurricane Katrina destroyed their home in Louisiana.
“Katrina hit and (Abdallah) came to us and said, ‘Hey, my family is wiped out.’ His parents had a convenience-type store wiped out. He’s got brothers and sisters down there,” Smith said. “We go to the NCAA so we can use our Special Assistance Fund, which most people forget we have, and we were able to bring (Abdallah’s) family here and we put them up at the Holiday Inn, paid for it, gave them per diem for breakfast, lunch and dinner until they could get themselves back up on their feet.”
Whether the athlete in need is Evan Turner or a hurdler on the women’s track team, the Special Assistance Fund aims to help athletes who are in a tight spot.
“I could give you countless stories where our kids have come to us and said, ‘I’ve got this problem,'” Smith said. “And so then we find a way to solve it.”
Repeated attempts to contact Turner and Abdallah were not successful.