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Dozens Granted Waivers to Practice, Compete on Election Day a Year after NCAA Legislation

“All Vote, No Play” has become “All Vote, Some Play.”

Last September, amid a raging pandemic, a contentious presidential election and a social justice movement that extended to college campuses, the NCAA approved a historic measure, mandating that schools hold no practice or competition on Election Day each year moving forward.

But a year later, on Election Day 2021, dozens of schools are holding required activities for athletes after having NCAA waivers approved during a process that some feel is unfair, disappointing and proof that the policy needs further examining.

“Initially, is it discouraging? Yes,” says Ryan Cassidy, a former Rutgers football player and the national chair of the Division I Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC). “We want every school to take advantage of civic engagement as a whole. We see it as more than a day off. This is a civic duty.”

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As the organization that proposed the Election Day legislation last year, SAAC oversaw the waiver process, Cassidy says, deciding to give programs a “grace period” since the legislation is only 14 months old. As many as 15 waivers were approved, he says, some of which were “full-conference” waivers. Waivers were mostly granted to avoid scheduling issues, specifically for sports that are in the postseason, such as soccer and cross country.

Yet, many schools received waivers to hold football and basketball practices on Tuesday, an issue some administrators believe creates an unequal playing field and defeats the purpose of the legislation, originally meant for athletes to vote, learn about the voting process and/or engage in voter education within their communities. One athletic director estimated that more than half of the 130-member FBS received a waiver. Another put the number at “at least 100” schools.

Those that received a waiver will not necessarily have the benefit of an extra day of practice, but they do have the benefit of a normal week of drills, says Todd Berry, the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association. In a normal in-season week, football players are given off either Sunday, as recovery a day after a game, or Monday, normally an intense academic day for students. Those not receiving a waiver instead practiced on those days in order to take off Tuesday.

“Tuesday is a significant day for football,” says Berry. “Having coached and played, I think it’s a huge competitive disadvantage [to not practice that day]. If everybody is doing it, it’s not that big of a deal, but when some are doing it and others aren’t, it is unfair.”

Messaging from the NCAA on the rule was not effective and created confusion. In fact, as of just two weeks ago, Berry says NCAA officials told members of the Football Oversight Committee, on which Berry sits, that no waivers would be granted aside from a blanket waiver for those in the postseason. Last month, at the request of several schools, the NCAA's Committee for Legislative Relief issued the blanket waiver specific to teams participating in postseason competition on Nov. 2 (there are conference championships being held this week in multiple sports). SAAC supported the waiver.

As part of receiving a waiver to compete, schools are required to provide an additional day off dedicated to civic engagement at some point during the 2021–22 academic year, and to provide education or programming related to civic engagement on Tuesday. In addition, the conferences that stage competitions Tuesday must provide education or programming to participating athletes, coaches, fans and officials.

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Still, some involved in the process want to see a greater commitment on campuses and at the NCAA national office to the cause of educating and involving athletes—and the entire campus community—in doing their civic duty as citizens. In fact, several schools have announced that they are abiding by the legislation, including Bowling Green volleyball and Georgia Tech men’s basketball.

“I would be O.K. with a waiver if schools stepped up big and demonstrated voter and civic engagement,” says Yellow Jackets assistant men's basketball coach Eric Reveno, one of the driving forces behind the “All Vote, No Play” initiative. “Schools should show that they have a voting plan for their student-athletes. We need to lead and be on the right side of our mission.”

Waivers, hastily filed Sunday and Monday, were granted to some schools as late as Tuesday morning, administrators tell Sports Illustrated. Scheduled competitions on Tuesday extend beyond just Olympic sports. There are three MAC football games kicking off Tuesday night, for instance.

Cassidy hopes to avoid setting a “precedent” in future years and believes that athletic directors and conference commissioners should build team schedules while keeping in mind the mandatory off day on Election Day.

“I knew there would be programs that slide under the radar and go out and practice,” he says. “We’re not going to keep a close eye on everyone. They should be holding themselves accountable.”

In some regions of the country, waivers made sense. There are no national elections Tuesday, only local races. In some places, there are no elections at all. For instance, one program received a waiver after citing that the only elections in that specific community were that of the school board.

In the past few months, there was a movement to adjust the Election Day legislation to only apply every two or four years, when there was a presidential election. That movement failed.

At some schools, athletes themselves have been behind the push to seek waivers, mostly to avoid practicing the day after a game. There is a “wellness concern,” says one administrator, to holding drills 24 hours after a competition, especially in a physical sport like football.

Kelis Barton, a senior soccer player at Washington State, says her team practiced on its normal day off, Monday, in order to have Tuesday off. She acknowledges the scheduling conflict that the legislation causes, but she also believes it’s for a good cause.

“I think it’s interesting people are waiving it because I felt like it was a big thing to get that passed,” Barton says. “There was a huge need for voting education last year, but it shouldn’t just be important when it’s the presidential election going on. You’re voting for a lot of other people that make change happen in your community. If it is waived consistently or abused, what’s the point?”

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