After weeks of uncertainty due to COVID-19, college athletes got a lifeline Monday.
The NCAA’s Division I Council voted to “allow schools to provide spring-sport student-athletes an additional season of competition and an extension of their period of eligibility.” Division I athletes are typically limited to four seasons of competition in a five-year period. Each student-athlete scheduled to compete this spring will now be eligible for a “fifth season” and a “six-year period.” While the end of the winter season was impacted by coronavirus, those athletes will not receive additional eligibility.
“The Council’s decision gives individual schools the flexibility to make decisions at a campus level,” said council chair M. Grace Calhoun, the athletics director at the University of Pennsylvania. “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.”
Temporarily extending this system has been debated since mid-March, when the NCAA canceled winter championships and spring seasons. Now that the NCAA has granted spring athletes that opportunity, it’s up to the schools to navigate the corresponding challenges.
Sports Illustrated’s Pat Forde examined those issues in a Monday night column that centered on the idea that the “new legislation is not easily transferrable from the Division I council vote Monday to on-campus reality.”
Forde wrote that the biggest issue is adding scholarship costs at a time when universities are going to see revenue hits athletically, academically and from donors.
“Financing more scholarships is a huge consideration,” Forde wrote. “Rosters could be bloated, with a correlated impact on playing time and concerns about exceeding roster limits. The nuts and bolts of larger teams — locker room space, medical staffing, training table allotments and campus housing assignments — all must be factored in.”
“You don’t want the complexity of this to get in the way of doing what’s right for the student-athletes,” Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione told Forde. “But there are a wide range of complexities to deal with. This comes with unintended consequences, and some of them are difficult consequences.”
The Division I council addressed some of the issues Monday, including allowing schools the ability to use the NCAA’s Student Assistance Fund to pay for scholarships for students who use their extra eligibility in 2020-21.
The council also adjusted financial aid rules to allow teams to carry more scholarship athletes, in an effort to account for incoming recruits as well as returning seniors who would have graduated if not for the COVID-19 outbreak. The council also voted to provide “schools with the flexibility to give students the opportunity to return for 2020-21 without requiring the athletics aid be provided at the same level awarded for 2019-20.”
“It was interesting to discover how many of our spring sports coaches were opposed (to the legislation),” an unnamed athletic director told Sports Illustrated. “They hated the subjectivity inherent in this — many schools will likely only invite the contributors back, and they think the incoming freshmen are getting screwed by clogging the pipeline in front of them.”