By Michelle Brutlag Hosick
For Sarah Patterson, it was a no-brainer.
In the fall of 2011, the Alabama athletics administration told all its head coaches that NCAA rules now allowed coaches to give their student-athletes an additional $2,000 in their athletics-aid agreements for miscellaneous expenses. Patterson, who coaches the perennial championship-caliber Crimson Tide women’s gymnastics team, knew she would take advantage of the opportunity for any recruits she signed.
“Some of our student-athletes travel thousands of miles away from home to go to school at Alabama. While their education is all covered in terms of room, board, books and tuition, it’s the intangibles that make a difference,” Patterson said. “There was never a question in my mind that this was in the best interest of the student-athletes coming in that year.”
Alabama sophomore Lauren Beers said she didn’t even know she would be receiving the extra money until Patterson presented her with the aid agreement in November of that year and explained why she received the extra $1,000 per semester. The next month, Patterson had more explaining to do.
The rule, called the miscellaneous expense allowance, allowed schools to award student-athletes up to an additional $2,000 per year to cover costs that aren’t factored into the traditional full scholarship, such as entertainment, laundry and trips home. The extra money was intended to cover the traditional “cost of attendance” at most colleges.
More than 100 Division I schools disagreed with the change, and the rule was suspended less than two months after the Board of Directors adopted it.
Student-athletes who signed aid agreements or National Letters of Intent in the November early signing period were eligible to receive the miscellaneous expense allowance, even after the membership objected and it was rescinded. Beers said she was told that she was one of only two student-athletes on the Alabama campus to get in under the wire, but they would receive the allowance for only one year.
She is very grateful for even that one year. Beers knew Tuscaloosa, Ala., was a long way from the family farm in Warren Center, Penn. And Patterson knew how that distance would impact Beers during her freshman year.
On a recruiting trip to meet Beers’ family – parents Rick and Trish and younger siblings Brandon, Samuel, Rachel, Nicolas and Andrew – Patterson made it a point to immerse herself in farm life. She even milked one of the family’s cows.
“That was a first for me in all my years recruiting. I wanted to see what she was going to be missing in October when she was homesick,” Patterson said. “When it happened, I knew exactly. I had the picture in my mind what she missed. This (rule) came in at the perfect time for Lauren. She would not have been able to go home without it.”
Beers used her $1,000 fall disbursement to travel home for fall break, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Without it, she said, perhaps only one of those trips would have been possible.
“The farming business isn’t the most productive right now, so it was really helpful,” she said. “It’s not like (student-athletes) can work to earn the extra money to go home. We don’t have the time.”
Beers, an exercise science major, chose Alabama because of her fit with the team, the atmosphere and the campus. The distance wasn’t a factor – she just wanted a place where she could flourish athletically and academically. After the first year, she knows she made the right choice, even with the miles between campus and her family.
“I love being part of such a great team, and having the entire university community behind us is pretty awesome,” she said. “Being a part of Alabama gymnastics is amazing.”
Some critics of the expense allowance rule suggest that having some student-athletes on a team receive the allowance and not all would cause resentment on teams that are supposed to work together toward a common goal. Both Beers and Patterson said that didn’t happen.
“It wasn’t an issue at all,” Beers said. “We don’t even talk about that stuff. I don’t know if they even knew (about the extra $2,000).”
Patterson agreed that it was a nonfactor. If she’d been allowed to give it to all 12 student-athletes, she said she would have done so. The timing of the adoption and quick suspension didn’t allow for that.
Both women hope schools can agree to bring the allowance back in some form in the future. The concept is still under consideration, and was endorsed by the presidents and athletics directors of Conference USA at an August meeting. Several other conferences, including the Southeastern Conference (to which Alabama belongs) and the Big Ten Conference, have expressed interest in reconsidering the idea.
“There’s a need for it. It’s our obligation to provide for student-athlete welfare, and this obviously falls within that category,” Patterson said. “It’s in the best interest of the student-athletes, and that’s what we’re in this for. I just hope that people can see stories like Lauren Beers, the oldest of seven children, how this afforded her the opportunity to see her family. If we can go case by case and look at the positives of how this was used, maybe the NCAA membership will reconsider.”