The careers of college athletes have finite terms; they’re not simply bound by injury or skill but by the NCAA’s ticking eligibility clock. Athletes have four seasons to play for their colleges, and the 2020 campaigns had just begun for spring sports such as baseball, softball and lacrosse.
The day after the NCAA canceled its winter and spring championship events, an NCAA committee announced its leadership "agreed that eligibility relief is appropriate for all Division I student-athletes who participated in spring sports,” with details set to be finalized later. While praising the NCAA’s quickness in addressing the issue, athletic directors warned that this announcement doesn’t equate to an official decision.
For athletes, extended eligibility would help amend a lost season. Morgan State Athletic Director Edward Scott played baseball at the University at Albany. When envisioning himself reacting to this news as an athlete, Scott said, “I would have called my coach and my athletic director trying to figure out what I’ve got to do to get that year back.” Those are the conversations athletes at Morgan State, a historically black university in Baltimore, will now have with Scott.
Administrators and coaches agree that eligibility relief is the fair and reasonable resolution these athletes deserve. It aligns with other NCAA rules, such as redshirting because of an injury, that help preserve their four seasons of play.
“When something outside of your control takes away the ability to compete — and usually we think of an injury — you get that year back,” Tulane Athletic Director Troy Dannen said. “And this is something certainly outside the control of the student.”
But beneath that rosy outcome are myriad challenges, ones that athletic departments are prepared to handle but could strain programs with less money. Roster rules and scholarship limits will need adjustments. Coaches sometimes recruit — and players occasionally commit to programs — with graduating classes in mind. The ripple effect of granting eligibility relief could last for a few years.
It’s a positive for the athletes who lost the opportunity to compete, James Madison Athletic Director Jeff Bourne said, but “this is going to be an incredibly confusing and daunting task.”
Here are a few questions this unusual situation has raised:
Who would receive the eligibility relief?
Administrators and coaches think eligibility relief should apply to all spring sport athletes whose seasons were cut short. A graduating senior who has played 3¼ seasons is no different from a freshman who will eventually become a senior who played 3¼ seasons.
Similar provisions for winter sport athletes seem more unlikely, given that most of those programs, including men’s and women’s basketball, had nearly finished their seasons.
Athletes are allowed five years to complete their four seasons of eligibility, which eases this process if 2020 is simply treated as a redshirt season for all athletes. Waivers could then be granted for a sixth year if the need arises. For instance, a freshman who missed most of this season because of the cancellations and later had to sit out her junior year with an injury could apply for a waiver to retain all four years of eligibility, only over a six-year stretch.
An NCAA Division II committee announced that all spring sport athletes would receive an additional season of eligibility, a promising sign for Division I athletes hoping for a similar decision Monday.
With eligibility relief, there would be far more athletes who have their degrees with seasons left to compete. This could lead to more graduate transfers, and Scott said, “I think that’s where the competitive advantages will slide much more toward the larger schools than the mid-majors.”
What about roster size and scholarship limits?
Those will need to change, at least temporarily. Usually an athletic department determines how many athletes each of its teams can carry. In baseball, the NCAA caps rosters at 35 players. But in both structures, a rule adjustment could rectify those issues.
“In an unusual world, the rules that apply in normal circumstances can’t simply be applied,” said Jo Potuto, the faculty athletics representative and a chaired professor of law at Nebraska. “What you have to do is use your best judgment to see how you can adjust those rules to approximate what the world would have been like if there had not been a crisis.”
Managing scholarships, which are limited by the NCAA, presents a larger challenge. Incoming freshmen already have committed to programs. Teams with large senior classes could face significant challenges since they probably signed freshmen to fill all of those open spots, causing next year’s rosters to balloon.
Most spring programs are equivalency sports, meaning a specified number of scholarships can be spread among the athletes. For instance, men’s lacrosse allows 12.6 scholarships, and players can receive a fraction of a scholarship.
The NCAA could opt to exclude fifth-year seniors who are using this eligibility relief in the scholarship count, but then schools would all have a different number of scholarships on their rosters. The NCAA could multiply the limits by 1.25, assuming the average program will have a 25 percent larger roster, then allow coaches to divide the scholarships as they see fit.
Eventually the scholarship limits and roster sizes need to return to the status quo. How they get there is “the magic question,” Southern Mississippi Athletic Director Jeremy McClain said. Those numbers could ease back down through the next few years, eventually returning to normal. A sudden drop from an elevated allotment would limit opportunities for high schoolers or for then-seniors hoping to stay another year to make up the season they lost.
“It’s going to be a difficult situation no matter how it’s done,” McClain said. “So I think that’s the big question right now: If we get the go-ahead, how much time do we have to try to get back down to what the normal roster limits would be? And I think that’s going to be more difficult than most people imagine.”
Will athletic departments be able to afford this?
Some will and others won’t. If the NCAA grants eligibility relief to these athletes and adjusts the scholarships available, Scott expects to meet with Morgan State’s finance and budget office. He then will talk with the compliance department before bringing those parties together with the coaches.
“We then have to make a tough decision,” Scott said, “because my instinct tells me that we'll be able to afford to retain some, but maybe not all.”
At James Madison, Bourne said the scholarships of spring sport seniors total about $450,000. Even without scholarships, additional athletes on a squad strain a department through expenses such as travel, equipment, meals and apparel. Other areas, including academic support, strength and conditioning, and sports medicine, would also be stretched. Administrators also worry about how universities could be affected by the economic fallout of the coronavirus.
“There are a lot of uncertainties,” Tulane’s Dannen said. “However, for those of us who will have the chance to do it from a financial standpoint, it’s a no-brainer. And the first place we need to make our investment is in the student-athletes.”
Will that give programs with more money an advantage?
Yes, but that was the case long before the coronavirus pandemic cut seasons short and prompted this conversation.
“Certain schools have advantages right now that they’re going to continue to have,” said Jon Gilbert, the athletic director at East Carolina. “The schools that necessarily don’t have certain advantages, they’re going to continue to be exactly where they are in the pecking order.”
Other issues of equity could arise based on roster makeup. Teams with many seniors this year would benefit next year. A team with many freshmen this season could reap the reward in a few years, when those players offer a boost during their fifth year.
Potuto said she tells her law students that the world is imperfect. The best approach in a situation such as this, she said, is to let what is fair to the athletes be the primary concern, with competitive balance as a secondary issue.
“I would say anybody who's worried about the competitive piece right now needs to get their mind put back into a better place, a more holistic place,” Dannen said.
Will athletic departments save some money this spring?
Yes, because programs are not traveling, recruiting or hosting events. But they also will take a financial hit.
Revenue from the NCAA men’s basketball tournament boosts athletic departments around the country. Even though the NCAA had a business-interruption insurance policy that could partially cover losses, USA Today reported that the cancellation of the tournament probably will reduce the association’s scheduled distribution of revenue.
The University System of Maryland, Scott said, is requiring athletic departments to refund part of the athletic fee that students pay. Scott expects that refund at Morgan State to total about $1.5 million.
“Schools our size, we rely heavily on [athletic fees] to subsidize our department,” Scott said. “In most cases at our level, it’s probably the largest form of revenue.”
Where will this be more complicated?
The Ivy League does not allow athletes to exhaust their eligibility during a fifth year at the institution, so an exception would be needed for those athletes to finish their careers at their schools.
Service academies follow a similar guideline, barring extreme circumstances. Athletes have eight semesters to use their four seasons of eligibility.
How many seniors would return for an additional season?
It’s hard to estimate, athletic directors said, because if the NCAA grants eligibility relief, the decisions will be highly individualized and based on decisions regarding scholarship limits. Many athletes in equivalency sports don’t have full scholarships, so their families would have to decide whether they can afford a fifth year.
Bourne said perhaps 50 or 60 percent of seniors at James Madison would return next season. Scott said he expects the majority of Morgan State’s seniors would want to play an additional year.
Some athletes might have jobs lined up or feel ready to finish their careers even after this season’s abrupt end, but Maryland women’s lacrosse coach Cathy Reese said, “At least the option is there for them to make that decision themselves, not having somebody make it for them.”
It’s unclear how nuanced the NCAA’s decision will be Monday. Will the association simply determine whether athletes will receive eligibility relief? Or will other details, such as scholarship counts, be resolved, too?
Athletic departments will then begin a marathon of decision-making and problem-solving as they navigate the logistical hurdles.
“It’s going to be a challenge,” Southern Mississippi’s McClain said. “And in this situation, it’s one that I’m willing to tackle because I think it’s the right thing for our student-athletes.”
With the spring semester ongoing — and many schools planning to finish classes online — athletic departments are also working through more imminent concerns related to academics and athlete well-being from afar.
Uncertainty dominates conversations about the coronavirus, so it’s still early to look far ahead. But football begins in about five months. And that’s where “Power Five” conference programs reel in revenue and smaller schools receive payouts for playing guarantee games.
“We’ll get through the NCAA legislation piece and this eligibility piece, and there will be some financial ramifications,” Scott said. “But I think that the real focus for most athletic directors is going to be: Once we get through this, what does it look like for the summer and the fall?”