Shawne Alston’s family did not have much money when he was growing up in a rough part of Newport News, Virginia. He can remember some of his friends going to jail and some losing their lives to gang violence. Football was always Alston’s escape.
It was his way out, too. He earned an athletic scholarship to West Virginia, where he enrolled in 2009. At the end of his third season, Alston, a bowling ball of a running back, scored two touchdowns in the Orange Bowl as his Mountaineers clobbered Clemson, 70-33.
Yet for all football did for Alston — including help him gain a degree in criminology — parts of his life at West Virginia were difficult. He often went to bed hungry, he said, as he struggled to pay for basic necessities, such as clothing and groceries. His full scholarship did not cover such costs.
“We weren’t taken care of,” Alston, now 26, said in a phone interview last week.
That is beginning to change. In 2014, Alston became the lead plaintiff in a federal lawsuit against the NCAA, claiming that it had set illegal limits on what athletic scholarships could cover. His lawyers settled the case this month for $208.7 million. Pending a judge’s approval, about 40,000 current and former college athletes will receive checks for $5,000 to $7,000, according to Alston’s lawyers.
“College sports are like a fraternity,” Alston said. “A lot of people are going to get a couple of dollars, so I feel like I helped my brothers.”
In the early 1970s, the NCAA began banning the small stipends some colleges and universities provided for athletes’ miscellaneous expenses and restricted scholarships to only tuition, books, room and board.
If athletes needed new clothes or snacks or a trip home, they had to cover the costs on their own. For players from less affluent families, like Alston, it often meant struggling to make ends meet. Alston said he and a teammate, Tavon Austin, now a receiver for the Los Angeles Rams, often called home and begged family members to send money.
If they got $20 or $30, Alston said, they would head to the grocery store and load up on hot dogs, buns and sandwich meat.
“There were some people who were OK,” he said of his fellow athletes. “They drove around in Mercedes-Benzes; they had family money. But for a lot of us, a full-ride scholarship wasn’t really a full ride. I’d be on the field and see all the revenue we were bringing in, and I had teammates who couldn’t pay to go home and visit their families.”
In 2012 — the year Alston played his final season with the Mountaineers — a study by the National College Players Association and Drexel University’s department of sport management found that more than 80 percent of football and men’s basketball players in top conferences, like the Big Ten and Southeastern conferences, lived below the poverty line.
Alston obtained his bachelor’s degree in just three years and began taking graduate classes toward his master’s of business administration as he finished his college football career. But even academic success came with a penalty: He was no longer eligible for a Pell grant, part of a federal program for low-income college students. He ended up taking out a $5,500 loan to cover living expenses for his final year.
After his college career ended, Alston tried out for the New Orleans Saints but did not make the team, so he headed back to Newport News to start his post-football life. Watching “SportsCenter” one night, he learned about a lawsuit against the NCAA and the game company EA Sports over the use of players’ images in video games without compensation.
Alston searched online for more information and called the lawyers who had filed the suit. He got a call back the next morning, he said, and eventually joined the plaintiffs in that case, which was ultimately settled for $20 million.
Soon the legal team asked Alston about starting another lawsuit, over the matter of living expenses and athletic scholarships, an issue that had been the subject of debate among the NCAA’s member universities by then.
For several years, the universities had debated whether to allow coverage of such expenses with cost-of-attendance stipends. Some wanted to offer them, while others — mostly in smaller, less wealthy conferences — objected.
In 2008, the association reached a $230 million settlement in a case related to the full cost of attendance, but that deal did not guarantee a stipend to any athlete. Three years later, the NCAA executive committee pushed through rules to allow $2,000 stipends for athletes, although member schools quickly voted to veto the decision.
Alston agreed to become the lead plaintiff in the new lawsuit, which was consolidated with several other cases.
“He’s always been a hustler,” said Alston’s mother, Asha, recalling that as a child her son would draw pictures and sell them to neighbors for 50 cents. “He’s always been willing to speak his mind.”
Several months after Alston filed his lawsuit, a federal judge ruled in another case that the NCAA had violated antitrust regulations by capping scholarships below the full cost of attendance. In January 2015, the NCAA passed rules lifting the cap, and the five richest conferences — the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Big Ten, the Big 12, the SEC and the Pacific-12 — began guaranteeing to cover the full cost of attendance.(The extra amount is calculated by each university and usually comes to $3,000 to $6,000 per year.)
“You can credit Shawne for helping put the pressure on the NCAA,” said Steve Berman, one of Alston’s lawyers.
Division I men’s and women’s basketball players and top-level football players who received scholarships, but not a cost-of-attendance adjustment, between 2009 and 2016 are covered by the settlement.
Since the deal was announced, Alston said, he has received calls from dozens of former teammates and friends who were athletes.
“Everybody wants to know if they’re eligible for the money,” he said.
The legal fight over student-athlete compensation is still going, including an effort to eliminate all restrictions on compensation for NCAA athletes. Alston, however, said he did not support the idea of colleges’ paying salaries to their athletes.
“How do you differentiate who gets what?” he said. “From player to player and school to school, it’s touchy.”
Today, Alston is studying for the LSAT, the standard law school admission test. Asked what he would do with his settlement check, if the deal goes through, he said, “I’ll give half to my mother, and I guess the other half I’ll put in my bank account.”