“The Council’s decision gives individual schools the flexibility to make decisions at a campus level,” M. Grace Calhoun, the Division I Council chair and the athletic director at the University of Pennsylvania, said in a statement. “The Board of Governors encouraged conferences and schools to take action in the best interest of student-athletes and their communities, and now schools have the opportunity to do that.”
The council’s decision does not include winter sports, such as basketball, gymnastics and swimming. The council “declined to extend eligibility for student-athletes in sports where all or much of their regular seasons were completed,” the NCAA’s news release said.
The NCAA canceled its winter and spring championship events March 12, but an NCAA committee announced a day later that 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. Athletic directors clarified that this public stance from the eight-member Division I Council Coordination Committee didn’t guarantee an official decision in favor of extended eligibility.
Granting eligibility relief to athletes whose seasons were cut short seems like a reasonable solution, particularly because many spring teams had only just begun their schedules. But the logistics of doing so are complex and will have lasting ramifications. The financial impact of inflated rosters and additional scholarships on athletic programs will be significant.
The NCAA’s 40-member Division I Council — which includes athletic directors, conference commissioners, other senior-level administrators, faculty athletics representatives and athletes — discussed those issues Monday and decided to offer extended eligibility.
A USA Today analysis found that granting eligibility relief to seniors on spring sports teams would cost public schools in the “Power Five” conferences between $500,000 and $900,000 apiece. Schools will decide whether they can fund additional athletes on their teams and support them with scholarships.
Another complicating factor for schools is that athletic departments will receive $375 million less than expected this year from the NCAA, which receives most of its revenue from its men’s basketball tournament. The NCAA announced last week that Division I revenue distribution for 2020 was previously projected to be about $600 million, but schools will instead receive a cut from a pool of $225 million.
Schools can use the NCAA’s Student Assistance Fund, which exists to assist Division I athletes with special financial needs, to pay for scholarships of athletes who use their additional eligibility during the 2020-21 school year, the NCAA’s release said.
Student-Athlete Advisory Committee leaders from “Power Five” schools around the country released a joint statement before the Division I Council’s vote. They outlined three recommendations to the council: immediate support for housing and food, eligibility relief for all winter and spring sport athletes whose schedules were affected by the coronavirus outbreak, and scholarship renewals for returning seniors that would not count toward scholarship limits.
“We are aware that eligibility relief presents extreme challenges for universities and the NCAA,” the statement said. “Our job is to stand up for what we believe is right and fair for athletes. COVID-19 has severely affected all collegiate athletes."
Most spring sports are equivalency sports, meaning a specified number of scholarships can be spread among a program’s athletes, who often receive partial aid so more athletes can receive funding.
The NCAA mandates scholarship limits for each sport, while individual institutions typically set the cap for each team’s roster size. In baseball, the NCAA caps rosters at 35 players, but Monday’s announcement said the council increased this limit.
These rules will change temporarily to accommodate the athletes who want to take advantage of the extended eligibility, but the NCAA’s news release did not specify more details.
An athlete who was a freshman during the 2020 season and plays her sport for the next four seasons will not exhaust her eligibility until 2024, so the reverberations from this waiver will last for the next few years.