Final Analysis: Flying Higher

How a certain local airline could strike a blow for fairer treatment of college athletes.

April 28, 2016By John Levesque

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Heres a thought: While Alaska Air Group spends $2.6 billion swallowing up Virgin America, it should wield some of its new clout Alaska will soon be the nations fifth-largest air carrier on becoming the college athletes best friend.
Alaska already showers upon the University of Washington nearly $5 million a year for naming rights to the football field at Husky Stadium and the basketball court at Hec Edmundson Pavilion. It also has sponsorship arrangements with athletic programs at the University of Oregon and Oregon State University. It even paints some of its airplanes in the colors of 11 Western universities, including the UW.
On the weekend that news of Alaskas acquisition of Virgin America broke, the UW womens basketball team was completing its improbable and exhilarating run to the Final Four of the NCAA womens basketball tournament. It occurred to me that theres an opportunity here for Alaska CEO Brad Tilden to start lobbying the NCAA on behalf of student-athletes everywhere, but particularly in Alaska Airlines own backyard.
Alaskas Husky Stadium agreement 10 years, $41 million already earmarks half of the money for scholarships and student-athlete welfare. Last year, for the first time, the NCAA started allowing Division I schools to pay athletes a stipend for incidental living expenses things like late-night snacks, student fees, incidental travel that arent covered by athletic scholarships for tuition, room and board.

The UWs annual stipend for athletes is $3,085, or roughly $11.40 a day during a nine-month academic year. Its not a lot, but its enough for a couple of cheeseburgers and a chocolate shake when the dining halls are closed.
Alaskas naming-rights money goes into the pot that helps provide those stipends, which the NCAA instituted as a means of closing the gap between what an athletic scholarship provides tuition, room, board, books and fees and the real cost of attending college.
The problem is that this cost of attendance stipend has made a playing field thats not level even less fair. Some schools pay stipends of more than $5,000, which is totally permissible under the NCAA guidelines. So if youre a poor kid being recruited by several universities, which school would you choose the one offering no stipend, the one offering $3,000 or the one offering $5,000?
This is where a corporate CEO has the opportunity to say to the NCAA, We are a major employer who believes in treating its workers equitably. As a huge supporter of our local universitys athletics program, we think its time you paid your athletes a little bit more than cheeseburger money and paid them fairly acros the board.
It doesnt have to be a quid-pro-quo situation, as in pay these athletes or well take our sponsorship money elsewhere. But airlines have become adept at squeezing travelers for every last dime via baggage fees, boarding fees, legroom fees, beverage fees and the like. I imagine an airline executive could be pretty persuasive suggesting the NCAA assess itself a fairness fee and pay student-athletes a decent wage from its enormous piggy bank.
The NCAA can still call it a stipend if it wants. Regardless, it should finally admit that scholarships are meant to provide an education but dont begin to acknowledge that an athletes contribution to an institutions bottom line not to mention its reputation in the media and its perception by the public deserves considerably more than free tuition.
JOHN LEVESQUE is the managing editor of Seattle Business magazine.