A shooting in Norway. Seventy-seven people die. A country reels. Boston College pays $2,300 to send its Norwegian-born soccer player home to grieve, to weep, to embrace his family.

A tornado in Alabama. Hundreds, including many student-athletes, lose homes, lose all that they own. Alabama spends thousands of dollars to replace the lost wardrobes of its student-athletes, helping repair lives swept away in the wind.

A parent dies. Many miles away, a child mourns in solitude. Mississippi State pays $1,200 to send its football player home to say goodbye.

The urban myth, fueled by some in the media, perpetuate stories about athletes who have scholarships but can't afford things like a winter coat or a plane ride home.

GETTING HOME AFTER TRAGEDY
A bomb shredded the summer silence.

Hours later, after an unrelenting shower of bullets, Norway lay in tatters. Seventy-seven people, many of them children, lost their lives on July 22, 2011, in an inexplicable attack in Oslo and a nearby island summer camp.

Directly between that island massacre and the downtown bomb – a mere 10 minutes from each site – the Ager family watched helpless and incomplete. In that home, a mother needed her son, to grieve with him. And she needed him soon.

But Chris Ager was 4,028 miles away.

The sophomore defender on the Boston College soccer team was visiting a friend in Madison, Wis. and slept through the morning’s carnage. When he awoke to news that his country was under siege, fear and panic squeezed tight. His aunt worked in the building that had been bombed, he realized. Was she safe? Did she make it out?

Seven time zones away, he was powerless to do anything save for reach for his phone. But the nation’s phone lines were inundated with panicked calls home, and Ager waited for 20 agonizing minutes until he heard his mother’s voice, straining through tears.

"Those 20 minutes, not knowing, were absolutely awful,” Ager said.

His aunt was safe. It was a Friday in summer, and many Oslo offices emptied at 3 p.m. – the bomb tore through the building a mere 25 minutes later. Ager wasn’t counted among the roughly one in four Norwegians who knew someone killed or injured in the attacks. His mother implored her son to return home, but hopping aboard a transatlantic flight at a moment’s notice was no simple, or cheap, endeavor.

“I had my mom calling me crying and my whole family back home,” Ager said. “It was tough.”

Ager rushed back to Boston, still more than 3,000 miles away from where he belonged, but BC would ensure that he finished the journey home. Ager’s agony apparent, head coach Ed Kelly pointed him to the Student Assistance Fund.

“As soon as we heard about the tragic events that occurred in Norway, we immediately thought of Chris,” said Carlene Pariseau, Boston College’s associate athletic director for compliance. “When Coach Kelly came to our office to see if there was anything that Boston College could do, we informed him that this was exactly what the [Assistance Fund] was for.”

Ager met with BC athletic department officials on Monday and boarded his plane home on Tuesday morning. The school covered the more than $2,300 cost of the round-trip flight. After a weekend of sorrowful isolation and eleven hours in the air, Ager finally embraced his mother. He lingered in Norway for a week with friends and family trying to make sense of senselessness, and took part in a cathartic gathering in downtown Oslo.

“We were just trying to understand it, even though you can’t really. We just wanted to be together as much as we could,” Ager said. “I can’t thank BC enough for the opportunity to fly home. It was absolutely immense. It meant the world to me.”

The facts shatter that perception. The numbers do not lie:

The NCAA and its member schools paid more than $53 million during the 2010-11 academic year to more than 81,000 student-athletes. The money, which comes from the NCAA’s Student Assistance Fund, paid for trips home, clothing, summer school, tutoring, graduate test fees, health insurance and countless other costs that scholarships don’t cover.

A version of the Student Assistance Fund was first offered in 1999, after the NCAA inked a $6 billion broadcast deal with CBS. The decision to start the Fund, came from the NCAAs desire to give back to student-athletes more directly than through grants or other forms of aid that are often laden with restrictions. The Fund has grown each year since its inception.

David Berst, vice president of Division I, was part of a group that helped create the Fund.

“We wanted to ensure a level of funding that would directly benefit student-athletes,” Berst said. “The Fund has paid a lot of important costs for students that otherwise would not be allowed because rules don’t permit it or schools can’t afford it.”

The NCAA sends Student Assistance Fund money to conferences before the academic year begins. The conferences then either distribute money evenly to the schools, dole it out based on expected need on a school-by-school basis or hold onto the money, giving funds to schools when requested. Five conferences – the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Mid-American and Pac 12 – each received more than $3 million to divide amongst their schools.

Football and men’s basketball student-athletes, who play the sports that generate the most revenue for their universities and the NCAA, received the most money from the Fund. In the 2010-11 academic year, football players were given $11.24 million and men’s basketball players used $4.03 million of Fund money. Women’s basketball players received the third-most funding on a per-sport basis, $3.68 million. 

“As we continue to examine how to best support our student-athletes, it’s important to remember that the Student Assistance Fund plays a key role in addressing the unmet financial needs that can develop in a student-athlete’s life,” said NCAA president Mark Emmert. “The Fund hasn’t always gotten the attention it deserves, but it is a vital resource benefiting thousands of student-athletes.”

Alabama athletes receive help
The April skies over Tuscaloosa, Ala., transformed from dark to menacing in a matter of moments last year. From them, a hulking monster crept downwards, slowly meandering through the town while spinning at 200 miles-per-hour. The tornado dwarfed Alabama’s 101,821-seat Bryant-Denny Stadium, decimating the houses and apartments around the iconic venue. Once the sky relented, the structures many student-athletes called home were nothing more than scattershot piles of brick and wood – their belongings, their keepsakes, lost to the wind.

But they could be replaced. Officials in the athletic department tapped into the Student Assistance Fund to aid the numerous student-athletes whose belongings were swept away. One student-athlete’s senior ring was replaced. Many more lost every shred of clothing they owned save for the shirts on their backs; they used Fund money to buy new wardrobes immediately after the storm.

“We had a couple of student-athletes who lost everything,” said Jonathan Bowling, Alabama’s associate A.D. for compliance. “Their entire apartments were just ripped apart…We used it to help try and restore normalcy.”

In all, Alabama gave student-athletes $245,935.37 in Student Assistance Fund money in 2010-11. $53,710 was used to buy clothing. $64,586.86 was put towards medical, dental or vision expenses not covered by other health insurance programs. $3,620 helped pay for professional program testing like the GRE, GMAT and LSAT.

“We’re helping out all sports; we’re helping out as many student athletes as we can,” Bowling said. “A lot of student-athletes from a lot of schools across the country come from backgrounds where they don’t have a whole lot. This is something that really benefits them.”

It happens all around the country, across all sports:

At Miami, a student-athlete received money to return home for the birth of a child.

At Mississippi State, several soccer players received more than $2,000 to replace clothing and other valuables after a fire destroyed their apartment. A few football players received more than $2,000 each to cover a lifetime’s worth of neglected dental work, a necessity they couldn’t afford in their youth.

When a Kansas student-athlete had to return home after the death of a loved one last year, the school shouldered the $5,800 cost of sending them and three teammates to the funeral. Overall, Kansas used $240,208.55 in Fund money, including $68,154.93 for travel and family expenses.

“We used the Fund to transport those student-athletes and teammates to the sites of the funerals when these young people needed each other the most,” said Jim Marchiony, spokesman for Kansas athletics, wrote in an email to the NCAA. “We are excited to be able to provide this money to [student-athletes], and want them to use it.”

The Fund, more often than not, isn’t used in times of desperation or despair. Student-athletes routinely call upon the Fund out of simple, everyday need. Those without the means for pricy electronics can procure laptops or iPads – $1.67 million of Fund money was used to purchase school supplies in 2010-11.

The Student Assistance Fund has grown steadily since its inception and now makes available more than $66 million annually to tens of thousands of student-athletes to help cover expenses beyond the reach of scholarships. All figures in chart represent funds budgeted, not distributed, for a given academic year.

The Student Assistance Fund has grown steadily since its inception and now makes available more than $66 million annually to tens of thousands of student-athletes to help cover expenses beyond the reach of scholarships. All figures in chart represent funds budgeted, not distributed, for a given academic year.
 

Student-athletes who might struggle to pay for needed summer school classes, which aren’t included in many scholarships, need not fret about repaying high-interest loans – $13.44 million of the Fund paid summer school tuition.

Those who need to go home have plane and bus tickets waiting for them – $3.34 million was spent on travel, personal and family expenses.

If a foreign athlete from a warm-weather country lacks adequate clothing to handle America’s harsher winters, all he needs to do is ask. In all, $8.7 million was used to purchase clothing.

When Alabama student-athletes win academic or athletic awards or need to attend formal events where they’re recognized, the school is quick to help them buy expensive formalwear.

“We’ve used it when they don’t have the means to buy their own suit or a new dress,” Bowling said.

That happened at Kansas State in 2004. After standout forward Nicole Ohlde finished her career, she had to ready herself for the WNBA Draft. That entailed not only honing her game in preparation for going pro, but sharpening her appearance for draft night. Standing 6’5”, finding clothes, much less elegant formalwear suitable for a nationally-televised event, was a challenge.

Kansas State was eager to help. The school informed Ohlde that she could dip into the Fund, which she wasn’t aware of, to find an outfit for one of the most important nights of her life. She stumbled upon a black-and-white-striped dress and wore it to the NBA’s Secaucus, N.J., studios where she was selected sixth overall by the Minnesota Lynx. Ohlde, who retired in 2011, still remembers the dress and how much it meant to her to be able to wear something she liked, irrespective of cost.

“It used to be very tough to find formal clothes,” Ohlde said. “I liked it when I first saw it and it was comfortable...[The draft] was definitely an experience I will never forget.”

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