College athletics is admittedly but one small corner of the world thrown into chaos by the coronavirus epidemic. But with some seasons cut short and others cancelled outright, the chaos, especially for spring sports, is indeed unprecedented. One key question? Would players having their careers cut short be awarded an additional year of eligibility after having one vanish under truly once-in-a-lifetime circumstances?
College baseball, softball, tennis, and golf programs among others have been waiting for the NCAA to sort out the issue. They finally got some clarity Monday evening when the NCAA announced that it has approved a blanket waiver for spring athletes to get an extra year of eligibility in the aftermath of spring/summer 2020 championships being cancelled amid COVID-19 concerns.
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.
The plan adjusts financial aid rules to allow teams to carry more student-athletes on scholarship to account for the logjam of incoming recruits and athletes who had been in their last year of eligibility who decide to stay. It also allows schools to employ a one year extension of eligibility for spring sport student-athletes, effectively extending each student’s five-year “clock” to complete four competitive seasons by a year.
Significantly, winter sports (such as basketball) were not included in the decision. Council members declined to extend eligibility for student-athletes in those sports where all or much of the regular season was completed.
While this is certainly a positive development for student-athletes, things are going to be sort of topsy-turvy for at least a year so far as scholarship allotment is concerned. Since sports like baseball and softball operate on a partial scholarship system (scholarships are split and distributed throughout the roster) as opposed to the “head count” system for sports like football and basketball (only full scholarships), how schools will choose to manage the scholarships of student-athletes who would’ve otherwise exhausted their eligibility is going to be an issue.
Even with the increase in allowed scholarships, some schools will undoubtedly elect to give some of these seniors a smaller percentage of a scholarship than they were previously receiving. The likely result would be a higher-than-usual number of athletes entering the transfer portal in these sports. The playing time and opportunities for certain underclassmen who expected their shot in 2021 will also be impacted, which will certainly contribute to the transfer numbers, as well.
It’s great that senior athletes can come back for another year if they choose to. Careers ending because of this pandemic seemed cruel, so the fact that this has apparently been avoided for spring sports athletes is at least some good news. Still there remain some hard questions for staffs looking to make room within their scholarship caps, and for universities facing decreased revenue but increased scholarship obligations. Another issue altogether involves Title IX, which mandates that women’s sports receive equal treatment and resources. What if more male athletes elect to come back for a fifth/sixth season than female athletes? Will Title IX waivers be available from the Department of Education?
These are small questions in the grand scheme of things. But they’ll be a big puzzle for college athletics. Until later...