With the virus still spreading throughout the country, teams could face postponements or cancellations during their seasons. Some athletes also might want to opt out given the risks of contracting the virus as a result of participating in practices and competition.
“The pandemic will continue to impact winter sport seasons in ways we can’t predict. Council members opted to provide for winter sport student-athletes the same flexibility given spring and fall sports previously,” M. Grace Calhoun, the Division I Council chair and the athletic director at the University of Pennsylvania, said in a statement. “The actions today ensure the continuation of local decision-making in the best interest of each institution and its student-athletes.”
Winter sports include basketball, gymnastics, swimming and diving, indoor track and field, ice hockey and wrestling. The NCAA delayed the start of the men’s and women’s college basketball seasons two weeks, with games set to tip off Nov. 25.
The council already granted eligibility relief to spring-sport athletes whose seasons were cut short because of the pandemic, as well as fall-sport athletes. Some conferences are playing fall sports as scheduled and others have postponed until the spring, but regardless of the circumstances, this year will not count against an athlete’s eligibility.
Many winter-sport athletes missed out on the postseason of their 2019-20 campaigns, but they did not receive any eligibility relief, with the council noting that those athletes had the opportunity to compete in nearly their entire seasons. The NCAA canceled all championship events, including the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, March 12, abruptly ending the seasons and careers of many athletes.
Eligibility relief is viewed as a fair resolution for athletes whose seasons have been affected by the pandemic, but it’s complex and presents logistical challenges. Schools self-apply this waiver for eligibility relief, meaning they get to choose whether athletes are allowed the extra season. Some athletic departments will not be able to afford the cost of doing so, particularly given the revenue deficits caused by the pandemic.
For fall sports, seniors who return for an extra season during the 2021-22 academic year will not count toward the team’s scholarship limit. However, in the years that follow, schools cannot exceed the limit, even though athletes on the team still would be allowed extra eligibility. In those cases, if schools choose to let athletes use their extra season of eligibility, it would effectively take away that scholarship from incoming recruits. The Division I Council’s announcement did not specify whether those same rules would be applied for winter sports.
During virtual meetings Tuesday and Wednesday, the Division I Council also proposed that all athletes be allowed to transfer and compete immediately. Under current rules, undergraduate athletes must sit out a season after transferring unless they receive a waiver from the NCAA. This legislation would represent a shift in the college sports landscape, giving athletes more rights and freedom.
The proposal gives the council the option of requiring athletes to notify their school of their intention to transfer by a certain deadline — May 1 for fall and winter sports and July 1 for spring sports. The council plans to vote on this proposal in January.
“This proposal creates a uniform, equitable approach for all student-athletes, no matter the sport they play,” Jon Steinbrecher, the commissioner of the Mid-American Conference and chair of the NCAA’s working group on transfers, said in a statement. “We believe the proposal fulfills the promise of the transfer resolution adopted by the Council in the spring, and trust the membership will strongly consider bringing consistency and predictability to Division I transfer regulations while treating student-athletes across all sports alike and in a sensible fashion.”
The Division I Council also waived bowl eligibility requirements for the 2020 football season. Typically, teams must have a .500 record to qualify for a bowl game. All Football Bowl Subdivision programs will now be eligible.
“In keeping with the Division I membership’s desire to provide maximum flexibility during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Council voted to allow as many student-athletes as possible the opportunity to participate in bowl games this year,” Calhoun said in a statement. “The decision also provides some certainty for schools and coaches as we move toward the postseason.”
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