Dec. 7, 2011
BY MATT MAGILL
KNOXVILLE — When Tennessee diver Jodie McGroarty's grandmother died in England, the junior was pretty sure she wouldn't be able to attend the funeral.
But thanks to the NCAA's little-known but impactful Student-Athlete Opportunity Fund, McGroarty not only was able to make it home in time — it didn't cost her a dime.
"One of the things we can pay for is a family emergency and transportation costs," said Todd Dooley, UT's assistant athletic director for compliance and operations. "Jodie came to see me on a Thursday and the funeral was Saturday. I told her she needed to go and not to worry about the costs.
"We got her on a plane the next day, and it was the last seat available that would get her to London in time. The ticket was $4,000 because it was so last minute, but there was no cost out of her pocket. There's no way she would have been able to afford that on her own."
Dooley called it "one of those warm and fuzzy moments" he says makes him appreciate the job he does every day. He also appreciates the many ways NCAA dollars help member schools make the collegiate experience a rewarding one for student-athletes
Part of the money generated by men's basketball tournament TV contracts with CBS and Turner, worth upwards of $800 million, is earmarked for the Student-Athlete Opportunity Fund.
The NCAA then gives that money to conferences, which divide it among member schools. According the NCAA, contributions to the Student-Athlete Opportunity Fund are scheduled to increase by 13 percent annually, subject to approval from its board.
Last year, Tennessee received approximately $250,000 for its Student-Athlete Opportunity Fund. This year, Tennessee received $230,000 for the fund.
Athletes can fill out an application or submit a receipt for reimbursement with the compliance office, which oversees the fund, to receive help with various expenses associated with attending college, as well as special exceptions like McGroarty's.
If approved, money is transferred from the opportunity fund to the University's financial aid office and athletes can pick up a check from the bursar's office in about a week.
Last year, Tennessee distributed more than $192,000 from the opportunity fund. So far in 2011-12, UT has distributed about 28 percent of the $383,000 in the fund. Money from the Student-Athlete Opportunity Fund can only be used for student-athletes.
"That money is used for any number of things," said Dooley, who helps oversee distributions from the fund. "We can cover medical and dental expenses, family emergencies. Money can go toward a laptop computer or clothing allotment, and we can use it for postgraduate fees, GRE and LSAT exams.
"It allows us to use the money that's there for expenses for student-athletes who might not otherwise get these opportunities."
All student-athletes are eligible to receive up to $500 each year for clothing and another $500 toward the purchase of a laptop. (Receipts are required to make sure money is used for those items.)
Money from the fund is also used to pay for medical expenses not covered by insurance. And athletes who don't have medical coverage of their own receive money from the fund to provide it.
Additionally, Dooley said, some money from the fund is also used to buy computers and equipment for the Thornton Athletics Student Life Center.
Then, there are the special disbarments like the one McGroarty received last year and the one wide receiver Justin Hunter received in September.
After Hunter had knee surgery to repair a torn ACL suffered at Florida, UT was able to pay for Hunter's mother to travel to Knoxville and stay in town while her son recuperated thanks to the Student-Athlete Opportunity Fund.
"The public outcry is for student-athletes to get paid, but this is the NCAA giving back to student-athletes," Dooley said. "A lot of people don't realize there are opportunities for student athletes to access money when they need it. It may not be for gas money to drive around, but there are ways they have access to money in critical times.
"We may not be able to help all student-athletes, but we help a lot of them."