By Jess King and Kourtney Kowalski
Mo’ money, mo’ problems… right? Not for the Pioneer Football League (PFL). The PFL is one of the few conferences in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) that is non-scholarship.
While states argue with the NCAA governing board about properly compensating student-athletes, the PFL is hiding under the radar and is successfully getting away with not giving these athletes a dime.
Not in scholarship money, and definitely not in general compensation. A majority of the population seems on board with moving forward within college athletics and finally letting athletes benefit from their likeness and image, meanwhile, the PFL is stuck in time.
How are they getting away with this?
It’s fairly easy when the schools in the conference are scattered across the country and most of them finish with a fairly subpar record, with the University of San Diego as the exception. From California to Ohio, Florida to North Carolina, Marist is the lone PFL program in the Northeast.
The PFL was created in 1993 when the NCAA wanted schools who had multiple divisions to just become one division. Marist, who had Division I basketball teams, needed to either drop the football program or create a Division I program.
After the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) dropped its football play after the 2007 season, Marist hopped into the PFL. A group of schools got together to create a league where athletes could play at the highest possible division and get away without allowing any athletic scholarships to be given.
So the construction for Tenney Stadium began and Marist was officially with the PFL in 2009.
The PFL wasn’t the only college football conference to scam skills off these athletes. The Ivy League did this way before the PFL did. The only difference: it’s not that elite of an education and once Thanksgiving hits, those Ivy-leaguers are headed home while the PFL is sending their conference champions to “compete” against bigger FCS programs. What is the competition really? The talent pool for athletic scholarship awarding colleges are greater than non-scholarship programs. Marist football’s senior captain, Dan Wittekind, is aware of this disconnect.
“There are kids I know that took D2 [Division II] offers that were full rides or gave more financial aid than went to D1, non-scholarship colleges. I know kids who got offered by Marist and went D2 because it was a better financial option for them,” Wittekind said. “There’s so many college football players, and not everyone’s going to the NFL and kids know that. At that point you look at your future and realize you don’t want to be in that type of debt when you graduate.”
It’s the same debate that’s been in the news: To pay or not to pay. Except this time, we’re talking about a simple scholarship for these athletes. At some point, student-athletes have to get serious and evaluate whether playing a sport for a certain program is beneficial to their futures. For most athletes, the PFL is not the answer to their problems.
How can a school like Marist even compete with other FCS colleges who have the financial ability to offer full scholarships to an abundance of athletes? Why do athletes even want to come here? Is it the allure of the Hudson Valley? Or rather, really, really good marketing by the Marist Athletics department? Whatever you choose to believe, students are still enrolling at Marist and they’re still finishing out their undergraduate degrees here for the most part.
For Marist, it’s much harder to sell a football player to join the Red Foxes rather than a basketball player. Since Marist is a member of the MAAC in all sports but football, all they have to do is offer a scholarship to sell a player and hope that he or she signs.
But when time’s up and seniors are looking to take a fifth year, half of Marist’s seniors that are eligible for a fifth year are not taking it with the Red Foxes. Key players to the team have already opened up their NCAA transfer portal, but for most of those players, the decision was easy. With head coach Jim Parady proudly standing behind their final decision, once a target list of colleges is made, seniors are going full force back into the recruitment process.
Redshirt junior Justice Seales is one of the three seniors to open up his transfer portal for his fifth year. “I was taking a fifth year regardless, once I became a redshirt freshman year I knew I wanted to play in college for four years,” said Seales. “I wouldn’t have come this far or taken a fifth year if I wasn’t serious about it, I want to take it to the next step and go to the league”.
Seales was a redshirt during his freshman year, knowing right away that he would do whatever it takes to play football all four years. Seales is looking to leave the PFL, which is a smart move if you’re looking to make it to the league.
With essential talents leaving, and not looking back, there are big shoes to fill during the recruitment process for Parady and his coaching staff. The (only) upside to this whole non-scholarship scheme: unlimited recruits… sort of. PFL schools are not restricted in the recruitment process the way most other FBS and FCS conferences are. For Parady, he’s looking to fill the gaps and increase the depth of his roster. The only real restriction is camp space and general overhaul issues like the amount of lockers available in the locker room.
“Because we’re non-scholarship, we don’t have a [maximum] number. We have a roster size for season camp which is 105, and that’s the same number facility-wise for our locker room. We don’t want to have a locker room with 140 players,” Parady jokes.
Recruitment perks are great and all, but a college education is unarguably one of the most expensive, yet necessary, experiences an individual can go through. For most athletes, they’ve dedicated years of their life to get paid off in one way: to play at the collegiate level with an athletic scholarship.
Money has become one of the biggest contenders for athletes in the PFL. “Teams in a higher division than us can offer me scholarship money, rather than if I stay here I am going to have to come up with that money,” said Seales. For fifth year athletes that are graduated and continuing their education, another year in the PFL without any chance of an athletic scholarship is not the most thrilling idea. For them, the only way to go is out.
As for the football team, the coaches need to sell the academics, the PFL, and anything else they can think of. They need to pull any strings that they can, looking for financial aid while still following the rules and guidelines set in place by both the NCAA and the PFL. Or at least try to follow those guidelines. But, because of the challenges with recruiting and offering financial aid, things can get sticky.
In 2013, San Diego was ineligible for conference title consideration despite their record, and Jacksonville had to forfeit a conference title in 2015. All because of misappropriated leadership grant money. Both programs had been caught abusing the power of financial aid and endowment scholarships. Everyone knows college athletics is a web of sticky situations, but PFL’s lack of scholarship money could be pushing them towards the downfall of their conference.
In the PFL’s defense, finding all the money to support the football program along with 65 or so full scholarships, is easier said than done. However, all the colleges in the PFL’s endowment funds shows just how much money they’re dealing with. Endowment funds are used for the sole purpose of investing back into that college, for its benefit. Marist College comes in at $253 million in endowment, while Davidson racks in $821.8 million. The list continues onto higher numbers: San Diego with $530 million, Stetson University at $230 million, and even Jacksonville with a mere $45 million.
As of December 3rd, Jacksonville has eliminated their football program. “Ultimately, one option stood out as the best path forward for Jacksonville athletics as a whole,” athletic director, Alex Ricker-Gilbert, shared with ESPN, “It’s clear the resources required to support our football program outweigh the benefits to the overall athletics department and the university.”
What did the athletics department do to reconcile with the football players already enrolled in their program? The university gave each and every one of them full scholarships to every player that chooses to stay until graduation. It seems like that money could have been used at an earlier time to ensure better recruits land at Jacksonville. It’s not like they didn’t have the money to begin with.
It’s obvious there’s tons of money in college football. With those endowments of the PFL schools in mind, it’s hard to ignore the fact that those schools have just as much, if not more, in endowments than most Northeast Conference (NEC) and Patriot League schools. For the NEC, Long Island University’s endowment is $230 million, Wagner at $74.4 million, and even Saint Francis University at $137 million. Patriot League schools numbers do go up a bit, but still those numbers compete with those in the PFL. Bucknell has $851 million in endowment, Fordham with $792 million, and Lafayette with $830.6 million.
Finding the money to support these scholarships was never an issue, instead the PFL opts to do the bare minimum for college football players.
While the battle for student-athlete compensation rages on, the PFL will continue to limit its talent acquisition. For Marist’s football program, the number of fifth years who stay with the program and Parady, will continue to dwindle in the search for a better financial benefit. With plenty of other Division I colleges, different masters programs, and the opportunity for a bountiful scholarship, why stay? For San Diego, the appeal to stay is all in a winning record. For the average teams of the PFL, a fifth year is the opportunity to explore the world of college football. If a student-athlete in the PFL is blessed with a fifth year, it’s their time to grow as an athlete and take advantage of what the NCAA can offer, or at least some scholarship money.
Edited by Ryan Loeffler