NCAA Grants Spring Athletes Extra Year of Eligibility; Winter Athletes Excluded

The NCAA Division I Council announced Monday that D-I spring-sport athletes will receive an extra year of eligibility to negate seasons canceled due to the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The decision comes just 10 days after the NCAA Division II Administrative Committee gave their spring-sport athletes an extra year of eligibility. It’s unclear whether athletes will be able to exercise such eligibility at another school, nor the possibility that incoming players could be released from letters of intent.

Student-athletes involved in winter sports, basketball included, will not receive any eligibility extension, as many winter-sport campaigns were either over or nearing conclusion.

Teams will have the opportunity to carry more scholarship spots to accommodate the potential return of 2019-20 athletes, as well as the induction of newcomers. The only “unaffected” teams under this clause, per se, are baseball squads. Typically, baseball is the only spring sport with a roster limit (35). To make this opportunity relatively equitable among all sports, the NCAA noted that seniors who choose to return won’t count toward the roster limit.

This reconfiguration, however, will allow schools to adjust the amount of aid given to seniors who elect to exercise their extra year.

The NCAA statement reads, in part, as follows: “In a nod to the financial uncertainty faced by higher education, the Council vote also provided schools with the flexibility to give students the opportunity to return for 2020-21 without requiring that athletics aid be provided at the same level awarded for 2019-20. This flexibility applies only to student-athletes who would have exhausted eligibility in 2019-20.”

Ah, caveats. Though expected and perhaps unavoidable, it’s almost a surefire fact that the idea of less financial aid for student-athletes — those who often struggle to maintain on or off-campus employment due to their rigorous sports schedules — will cause many all-but-guaranteed returnees to second guess things. In her March 28 piece for The Athletic, Nicole Auerbach wrote:

“… a school might tell one scholarship track athlete it could bring her back for her final season but only pay for room and board. Another track athlete might get offered a quarter of a grant instead of the half-grant she previously received. Individual athletes could and would get different amounts.

This option would set up some very difficult decisions for individuals to make. A lot of spring-sport athletes already only receive partial scholarships and would have to weigh paying to play another year anyway — and potentially paying more than they have been.

Auerbach additionally wrote that the NCAA reported Thursday that “it would distribute just $225 million (of what was supposed to be $600 million) to its Division I schools… a significant hit to many athletic departments.”

No longer can we honor your words, Biggie. The NCAA is now in a less money, mo’ problems situation. With so much uncertainty in relation to practically everything, not just ticket sales and television contracts, there’s not an abundance of cash to go around. This very drawback puts smaller, less profitable schools like Marist in a stickier situation than a Duke or a Clemson. They have the same chance to retain athletes, but they can’t provide equitable relief a school pulling in $53.9 million in revenue for one team can.

There’s also the roster issue. Yes, this ruling provides teams with more scholarships to account for both returnees and freshman recruits, but it can’t possibly account for playtime, lockers, the potential need for additional staff, etc. Auerbach spoke with MAC (the other one, the one without the extra “A”) commissioner Jon Steinbrecher regarding such issues; he said “in a perfect world… it’d be easy: give all athletes impacted four full seasons of competition. But there are operational questions that raise new financial issues.”

Meanwhile, LSU Athletic Director Scott Woodward said, “It’s going to be expensive, but I think it’s worth it… it’s worth our student-athletes having another opportunity if they want that.” Their difference in opinion, though not vast, lends itself nicely to another one of Steinbrecher’s points: anything beyond an official NCAA statement is an attempt to “‘project out and we’re in this great unknown… We’re trying to make wise and prudent decisions without all the information.'” Which is kind of analogous to everything today, wouldn’t you say?

Edited by Lily Caffrey-Levine

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