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College sports reform bill includes tuition break for some athletes

North Carolina’s Garrison Brooks (15), Seventh Woods (0), Brandon Robinson (4) and Kenny Williams (24) are all from out of state.
North Carolina’s Garrison Brooks (15), Seventh Woods (0), Brandon Robinson (4) and Kenny Williams (24) are all from out of state.

A trio of state senators has introduced legislation that would create new benefits for college athletes such as free legal counsel, better health care and additional academic assistance.

The proposed reforms came after months of presentations and debate among lawmakers in a special committee. But no one discussed another provision within the bill that could save college athletic programs and their booster clubs millions of dollars.

Senate Bill 335 also would allow public universities to treat out-of-state students on full scholarships as in-state students for tuition purposes. At UNC-Chapel Hill, for example, that’s the difference between paying $9,018 in tuition and fees for an in-state student and $36,000 for an out-of-state student for the current academic year. At NC State University, the tuition and fees are $9,100 and $28,444, respectively.

State Sen. Joyce Krawiec, a Kernersville Republican, said she wasn’t sure how the provision ended up in the legislation though she thought the schools may have suggested it. But she said she and the other sponsors support it.

“We want their athletic programs to be hugely successful, because it’s great for the schools, it’s great for North Carolina,” she said.

Who pushed for the provision? An NCSU spokesman said no one there sought it, while a legislative liaison for UNC-CH referred all questions to the UNC system office, which declined to comment Friday.

The state has been down this road before. In 2005, State Senate leaders inserted a provision in the state budget providing the tuition break. Then-State Sen. Tony Rand, a Fayetteville Democrat and an avowed Tar Heel fan, spoke of the benefit for academic scholarship programs, such as UNC-CH’s Morehead Foundation, which is also open to out-of-state students.

A political action group of UNC-CH supporters also pushed for the legislation.

Tuition break vs. scholarships

But over the years, much of the roughly $10 million break for the public universities went toward athletic scholarships for out-of-state students. The UNC system’s board of governors opposed the tuition break, as did the state school board association because it ran up against a requirement that limits out-of-state enrollments to 18 percent of the student body.

UNC-CH is the only state university that consistently hits that cap because of its reputation as one of the nation’s top public universities. But the tuition provision meant out-of-state athletes and scholars took slots that otherwise would have gone to in-state residents whose parents’ taxes help pay the university’s bills.

Over the ensuing years, some state lawmakers filed legislation to eliminate the break, but it didn’t go away until 2010, when the state was in the depths of the Great Recession, with lawmakers desperate to close a huge budget gap.

Senate Bill 335 does not allow schools to receive more state money to cover the loss of tuition, which means they will have to shoulder the break through cuts to other programs or drawing from other available funds. The bill also says the schools “must maintain at least the current number of North Carolina residents admitted to that constituent institution.”

The years since the tuition break ended have been full of controversy for UNC-CH and NCSU athletics, with both schools caught up in scandals that critics say are driven by a dynamic that brings big money to top Division I programs on the backs of athletes who receive little more than the cost of attendance.

In 2011, the academic–athletic scandal involving sham classes at UNC-CH was outed. A detailed investigation eventually showed that from 1993 to 2011, 3,100 students had taken classes that had no instruction and were largely created and graded by a departmental secretary. Nearly half of those students were athletes, the investigation found.

Tuition paid for those classes, which meant taxpayers picked up much of the cost for in-state students.

In 2017, another major scandal emerged that captured several Division I schools including NC State, with adidas money being used to recruit star basketball players.

A McClatchy examination of top high school players found that many suit up for a college team sponsored by the same shoe company – Nike, adidas, Under Armour – that backed their AAU program.

‘Shrewd politicking’?

Pairing reforms to benefit college athletes with a big tuition break for athletic programs with high-salaried coaches and ever-grandiose facilities makes for “shrewd politicking,” said Davis Winkie, a former Vanderbilt University football player pursuing a doctoral degree at UNC-CH. He gave a presentation on the subpar graduation rates of black athletes at UNC-CH and NCSU at one of the special committee’s hearings, and calls the athlete protections in the bill “a good first step.”

“As we well know, the bill in its current form is anathema in the eyes of the UNC system, and it makes it seem like the in-state tuition break for scholarship athletes might be kind of a bone thrown their way,” he said.

But the legislation doesn’t stipulate what athletic departments can do with the savings. Winkie suggested the savings could help UNC-CH, for example, cover the buyout of former football coach Larry Fedora’s contract. He was let go in November after two losing seasons and 13 players suspended for selling their school-issued Nike sneakers.

Jay Allred is one of the chief advocates for the reform legislation after his daughter suffered a back injury while she was a golfer for East Carolina University. They say the actions of coaching and medical staff at ECU exacerbated the injury.

Allred said the in-state tuition provision didn’t surface until after the special commission had done its work and produced draft legislation. He doesn’t oppose the provision.

“If it will help get this overall legislation passed, I’m good with it,” he said.

Krawiec said she will look at whether the tuition break is needed as the bill is heard in legislative committees.

“The bill’s early on,” she said. “There’s no telling what it may look like when it gets to the end of the road.”

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Dan Kane began working for The News & Observer in 1997. He covered local government, higher education and the state legislature before joining the investigative team in 2009.