Like many headline-making ideas, it came to him in the middle of the night.
Not that he hadn't thought about it before. In four seasons at West Virginia, where he rushed for 1,068 yards and 19 touchdowns, Shawne Alston came to realize something needed to be done. And, as he was later told by his former teammates, he was the guy to do it.
On March 5, represented by a law firm that employs more than 50 attorneys in nine offices from coast to coast, Alston filed a proposed class-action lawsuit against the NCAA and five "power conferences" — the ACC, Pac-12, Big Ten, Big 12 and SEC. At issue: Whether the NCAA violated anti-trust laws by putting a cap on athletic scholarships.
Alston, a vital part of Phoebus' 2008 state championship team, was on grant-in-aid for his four seasons at WVU. That covered his tuition, textbooks, supplies, meals and housing. But according to Alston — in fact, according to many college athletes, both current and former — that scholarship money did not cover the full cost of attendance.
"People say, 'OK, they have a free education,' and then they see us going out and enjoying ourselves on Saturdays," Alston said. "They think, 'They're living the life.' But there's the behind closed doors (part) that people don't know about. Sunday through Friday, it's a struggle sometimes.
"It's different for some people. I had some guys on my team who drove BMWs and had credit cards. But when you take these kids from the inner cities, and they're basically coming from nothing, it's a different story. At the end of the day, we all sign the same scholarship regardless of the financial status of your family."
The 120-page lawsuit claims that the difference between an athletic scholarship and the amount of money needed to attend college is "several thousand dollars … per year, per athlete." It accuses the NCAA of collusion by setting an "artificial cap" on grants-in-aid that are well below the actual cost of attendance — which by the NCAA's definition includes "other expenses related to attendance at the institution."
The suit cites a 2012 study that concluded out-of-pocket expenses for athletes Football Bowl Subdivision schools on full scholarship was between $1,000 and $6,904 a year.
"This is a case that everyone can get behind," said Leonard Aragon, who represents Alston with Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP. "Hopefully, the NCAA does and we're able to resolve this easily and quickly for the benefit of the student-athlete.
"I haven't met anyone who says a student-athlete shouldn't be given the full cost of attending a university in exchange for playing football or basketball at that university. … The only reason they aren't given the full cost of education in the form of a scholarship is because of an anti-trust violation by the NCAA."
There has been a strong movement toward covering that gap. Jim Delany, commissioner of the Big Ten, favors yearly stipends between $2,000 and $5,000 for all athletes in his conference. ACC commissioner John Swofford said he wants to "enhance" scholarships to cover the full cost of attendance.
In fact, NCAA president Mark Emmert has long been a proponent of stipends. In 2011, his call for a $2,000 per-athlete stipend, regardless of need, was passed by the Division I board. But 161 of the 355 D-I schools (44 percent), citing cost and Title IX concerns, voted to override it.
Emmert is still pushing for it. Three months ago, in an address to the American Football Coaches Association, he said the stipend notion is now "less threatening" to membership.
But for many schools, mostly those not among the power conferences, the right thing might not be economically feasible.
"We did the calculation, and we have roughly the equivalent of 250 full scholarships," Old Dominion athletic director Wood Selig said. "If the (stipend) value is $3,000, we're looking for $750,000 from somewhere to compensate our student athletes for the full cost of attendance. Where do you come up with $750,000?
"Now, the schools in the big five, with their TV contracts and bowl revenue, maybe that (money) is sitting there on their books. But the last thing you want to do is raise fees within the student body to generate the revenue needed to go toward (athletes') full cost of attendance."
The NCAA might be on its way to solving this problem, at least partially. On Thursday, the Division I Board of Directors endorsed a plan that would allow the five major conferences to establish many of their own rules.
If final approval is given in August, the 65 schools who make up those conferences could provide stipends even if the rest of the NCAA's membership does not. As for the fear that would create a bigger gap between the haves and have-nots, Selig isn't overly concerned.
"That gap is already fairly large anyway," he said.
Decades ago, athletes did receive monthly stipends, which were then called "laundry money." It amounted to $135 annually (about $600 in today's value) and were designed to cover extra expenses. But that went away in the 1970s.