NCAA Officially Grants Eligibility Relief To Spring Sports Athletes

By RossWB on March 31, 2020 at 7:09 pm
go relief go
© Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports
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Sources in the NCAA had suggested a few weeks ago, in the immediate aftermath of the sudden cancellation of all remaining college sports in the 2019-20 season -- that eligibility relief would be made available to spring sports athletes. But there hadn't been any official word on that issue, nor any formal details about what that relief might look like. But on Monday the NCAA voted on the topic and made it official: spring sports athletes will be granted an additional year of eligibility. 

They also provided a few more details on how the relief will work -- although some of the details are being deferred to the schools to determine, particularly in terms of financial aid. 

Members also adjusted financial aid rules to allow teams to carry more members on scholarship to account for incoming recruits and student-athletes who had been in their last year of eligibility who decide to stay. In a nod to the financial uncertainty faced by higher education, the Council vote also provided schools with the flexibility to give students the opportunity to return for 2020-21 without requiring that athletics aid be provided at the same level awarded for 2019-20. This flexibility applies only to student-athletes who would have exhausted eligibility in 2019-20.

Schools also will have the ability to use the NCAA’s Student Assistance Fund to pay for scholarships for students who take advantage of the additional eligibility flexibility in 2020-21.

Essentially: 

  • Financial aid limits are relaxed next year to allow schools to provide aid to all returning players as well as the incoming athletes for the 2020-21 season.
     
  • However... for athletes who would have exhausted their eligibility in 2019-20 (aka, seniors), schools are not required to provide aid to those athletes at the same level as they received in 2019-20. Schools can choose to offer less to some seniors, leaving it to the senior to decide whether to return (and make up for the aid shortfall out of their own pocket). 
     
  • That stipulation only applies to athletes who were seniors in 2019-20 (and will be again in 2020-21). Athletes who were freshmen, sophomores, or juniors in 2019-20 and returning in 2020-21 will receive aid at the same level as previously anticipated. 
     
  • The NCAA will also allow students to use the NCAA's Student Assistance Fund to cover the costs of providing aid to athletes who choose to return for the 2020-21 season. (My understanding is that this only applies to those athletes who were seniors in 2019-20 and using this NCAA ruling to return as seniors again in 2020-21.) 

The NCAA also announced that the roster limits that traditionally apply to college baseball will be waived for the 2021 season, in order to accommodate returning seniors. 

This entire situation -- the abruptly canceled 2020 season, the impact the Covid-19 pandemic is having on the 2020 MLB Draft (it's expected to be shortened to just 5-10 rounds, as opposed to its traditional 40-round length, which will dramatically decrease the opportunities for college players to be drafted by MLB teams), and now this decision to give current players an additional year of eligibility -- has created an incredibly muddled picture for college baseball teams. Chad Leistikow has broken down many of those issues for Iowa baseball in a pair of pieces here and here. I'd definitely encourage you to read them to get a better understanding of that particular situation. 

Again, this decision only applies to spring sports: baseball, softball, golf, lacrosse, rowing, beach volleyball, tennis, track, men's volleyball, and women's water polo. The NCAA did vote on whether or not to offer the same eligibility relief to winter sports -- and declined to do so. 

Was that a fair decision? Not really. Providing a set of benefits to one group of athletes and not to another group -- who have been harmed in the same way -- looks like a fairly textbook example of unfairness. But it's a more palatable decision to explain, given that winter sports athletes had, by and large, completed their regular seasons, while spring sports athletes had just begun theirs. (The decision does ask us to ignore the fact that most regular season competitions are functionally useless, but I digress.) It's also a logistically less fraught decision; the logistics behind returning eligibility to spring sports athletes is already quite complicated. Returning eligibility winter sports athletes would create even more complications, particularly in sports like basketball that operate under different scholarship conditions than other collegiate sports. The NCAA chose the path of less resistance. 

There's still a fair amount of uncertainty ahead for spring sports athletes, particularly returning seniors and what financial aid might be made available to them. Schools are going to be receiving much smaller revenue distributions from the NCAA in the wake of a season without an NCAA Tournament and uncertainty looms about what this fall's college football season might look like. But at least spring sports athletes now officially know that they will have an additional year of eligibility to replace the one lost this year and seniors will have one more chance to compete. That's more certainty than they had a few days ago. 

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