NCAA Restores Additional Year of Eligibility for Spring-Sport Athletes

John. E. Hoover

The NCAA Division I Council on Monday approved an additional season of competition for all spring sport athletes.

The Council also voted to adjust financial aid rules to allow teams to carry more members on scholarship to account for both incoming recruits and the student-athletes who were on their last year of eligibility and decide to return next year.

An additional year of eligibility was not extended to winter-sport athletes like men's and women's basketball, men's and women's hockey, wrestling and rifle. 

The Council also voted to provide schools the flexibility to allow student-athletes the opportunity to return for 2020-21 on reduced scholarship — seniors on their final year of eligibility only — if necessary, per the needs of the schools.

“The Council’s decision gives individual schools the flexibility to make decisions at a campus level,” said Council chair M. Grace Calhoun, who’s also the athletic director at Penn. “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.”

Two weeks ago, in response to the Coronavirus pandemic, the NCAA canceled all 2020 spring sports championships, prematurely ending the careers of college seniors in numerous sports at every school around the country.

Most NCAA sports are equivalency sports, meaning most student-athletes are not on full scholarship. Coaches must parse up their NCAA limit to fit their roster sizes (11.7 scholarship for 35 baseball players, for example). Roster limitations will be waived next year.

On March 13, the NCAA’s Division I Council Coordination Committee said it would recommend granting relief to spring sport student-athletes who lost a year because of the shutdown.

Skeptics at the time widely panned the announcement, suggesting there was little chance it would actually become legislation, and as the complexities of COVID-19’s impact on college athletics began to reveal themselves — Will there be a football season in 2020? Who would fund the scholarships of returning players? Would just 2020 seniors or all scholarship athletes get an additional year of eligibility? — the new reality began set in that 2020’s seniors were finished, their hopes for a final season of competition crushed, their dreams of winning a championship dashed.

Instead, the NCAA showed uncommon compassion for its student-athletes in remaking the rules to let them return, should they so choose.

The Council also voted to let schools use the NCAA Student Assistance Fund to pay for scholarships of student-athletes who decide to return for an extra year of eligibility.

The Division I Council is comprised of conference commissioners, athletic directors, faculty reps, senior women’s administrators as well as a council of carefully selected student-athletes.

Monday’s news means student-athletes in the Class of 2020 can now be in the Class of 2021 and, on average, teams will have roughly 25 percent more athletes on rosters in baseball, softball, men’s and women’s track and field, men’s and women’s lacrosse, men’s volleyball, men’s and women’s golf, rowing and women’s beach volleyball.

“It’s an intellectually fascinating and challenging time,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said on a national teleconference last Thursday, “but it’s also heartbreaking because we know how much effort, energy and emotion our student-athletes and their coaches put into their sports in the pursuit of excellence.”

Bowlsby said he “could capably argue either side” of restoring a year’s eligibility or not, but at the time cautioned against hasty decisions.

“I think anyone would have empathy for the young people that have worked so hard and haven’t gotten an opportunity,” Bowlsby said, who added that winter athletes might also have a case to resume their postseason pursuits that were cut short. “To lose a year is an enormous thing.

“The thing I most worry about, I worry that with the uncertainty of the current circumstances, we might find ourselves with a disruption in the fall and winter next year, due to a rebound of the Coronavirus — and everybody’s telling us it’s gonna be around for a while, and part of the time it’s gonna be around without a vaccine. If we have that sort of disruption again, then are we gonna offer fall-sport athletes another year, and how does that interface with their academic undertakings?

“It’s got a lot of moving parts. … As much as everybody wants to know if they’re gonna get another year, I think we would be well served by waiting a period of time just to make the decisions just to be able to see a little bit more of the data and see what the next 30 or 60 days brings us.”

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