Here's How The NCAA Could Have Offered Eligibility Relief For Winter Sports Athletes

By RossWB on April 2, 2020 at 8:01 am
NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis, IN
© Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The NCAA announced eligibility relief for spring sports athletes earlier this week, which was a welcome decision for those athletes, whose seasons were abruptly ended by the COVID-19 pandemic. During the same meeting in which that decision was made, though, the NCAA also decided not to provide any eligibility relief for winter sports athletes. I think that was a mistake, especially as the organization's own decision re: spring sports athletes provides a workable framework for eligibility relief for winter sports athletes as well. 

Let's address the main arguments against granting eligibility relief to winter sports athletes. 

"They competed most/all of their regular season competitions."

It's true that spring sports athletes had only been in action for a few weeks when their seasons were halted, compared to winter sports athletes who had competed for several months and who had completed all but the NCAA Tournaments in their respective sports in many cases. However, this assumes a level of importance in regular season events that simply isn't true for many sports.

Regular season events matter (to varying extents) in team sports like football, basketball, or baseball/softball. They matter far less in individual sports like gymnastics, track, or swimming. (Wrestling straddles the line here a bit, but it is fundamentally an individual sport.) The outcomes of a single meet or dual -- or even a collective season's worth of meets or duals -- matter relatively little in those sports. In individual sports, the regular season is primarily about qualification for the end-of-season competitions that truly matter (conference and national tournaments) and training to peak for those events. Ending the season without those competitions makes the entire enterprise feel incomplete. 

"How would you make this work with scholarship/roster size limits?" 

Scholarship and roster size limits are arbitrary numbers; they are not inviolate, which the NCAA proved with its decision to grant eligibility relief to spring sports athletes. Scholarship and roster size limits impact spring sports just like they do winter sports; the NCAA found solutions to those issues for spring sports, which suggests that there's no reason it couldn't do the same for winter sports. 

For spring sports, the NCAA simply waived the existing limits and said that returning seniors wouldn't count against the current scholarship limits (and also granted baseball an exception to its existing roster size limit). If that's an option for spring sports, wouldn't it also be an option for winter sports? It's difficult to see why not. 

"What about the financial concerns? Schools haven't budgeted for these additional years of aid."

On one hand, it's more than a little eye-rolling to see schools crying poverty when it comes to finding a little bit more money for students after several years of dramatically escalating contracts for coaches and administrators, as well as the never-ending facilities arms races that so many schools have thrown themselves into. On the other hand, not every athletic department is flush with cash, especially outside the Power 5 conferences. And the financial situation for all schools is obviously going to be more challenging now in the wake of the significantly reduced distributions they'll be receiving from the NCAA this season, the national (and global) economic downturn that the COVID-19 pandemic has wrought, and the uncertainty surrounding football in the fall. 

That said, here again the NCAA's decision for spring sports athletes provides clear options for winter sports athletes as well. In granting eligibility relief to spring sports athletes, the NCAA was careful to lighten the potential financial burden on schools by allowing them to negotiate aid packages for seniors returning for a second chance in 2020-21. Schools aren't required to offer those seniors the same level of financial aid that they provided them in 2019-20, which gives the institutions greater flexibility in terms of their planned aid budgets. Again, it's difficult to see why this couldn't apply to winter sports athletes as well -- players can get another year to compete, but the trade-off is that they're not guaranteed the same level of financial aid, so that extra year of competition may require a greater financial contribution on the part of the players (and their families).

The wrinkle here is basketball, which operates under slightly different rules when it comes to scholarships. Unlike most sports, which allow partial scholarships and for schools/teams to divvy up that scholarship money at their discretion, basketball scholarships are required to be fully-funded; athletes are either on full-ride scholarships that cover all costs of tuition, fees, and room and board, or they're walk-ons and responsible for covering those costs themselves. That does make things a bit more complex, but the determination regarding baseball's roster limits suggests that the NCAA can (and will) craft exceptions based on a particular sport when necessary, which suggests that it could find a unique solution to this unique problem. Maybe they allow partial scholarships just for returning seniors. Maybe it goes a step farther and says seniors can return and compete, but they can't receive financial aid. 

In fact, that could be an option for all winter sports athletes in terms of reducing the potential financial impact on institutions: grant returning seniors an additional year of eligibility, but make them ineligible from receiving additional financial aid from the athletic department. That might be a compromise solution to reflect the utterly unique nature of this situation: athletes get the opportunity to compete, but schools aren't burdened with a great deal of additional financial costs related to that unplanned eligibility. Would many athletes choose to forgo the chance to return for an additional season in this scenario? No doubt. There would probably be many students who would be unable or unwilling to take on that financial burden or who may just be ready to end their playing careers and move on to their professional lives. And that's fine. But this scenario would at least give them a choice and an opportunity to continue their playing careers if they wanted; that's far more than they have now. 

"What about incoming freshmen or other younger athletes who could lose opportunities?"

We already discussed the potential impact on scholarship limits, so I don't think there's a need to re-hash it here. Simply put, it's clear that the NCAA can create temporary waivers to scholarship limits or to exempt returning seniors from applying to those limits; that would prevent incoming freshmen from being negatively impacted or losing all or partial scholarship aid to an unexpectedly returning senior. The NCAA could also consider allowing incoming freshmen to be released from their letters of intent if impacted by an unexpectedly returning senior, or temporarily loosening rules regarding transfers and immediate eligibility. 

The issue of unexpectedly returning athletes "taking away" opportunities from other athletes is a little murkier. It's true that any scenario that allows athletes this year to return for an additional year is going to have a knock-on effect of limiting opportunities to compete for other, younger athletes. But this is as true in spring sports as it is in winter sport; if it's acceptable in one, shouldn't it also be acceptable in the other? Younger athletes also have more options available for retaining or extending their eligibility. They may have redshirt years available (especially if they're incoming freshmen) as well as the potential for Olympic redshirts (in some sports) or medical redshirts.

That's not a perfect solution, but there is no perfect solution here. The abrupt cancellation of all remaining winter and spring sports events was an unprecedented decision. It's one that calls for unprecedented solutions. The NCAA's own ruling on Monday proves that it was willing and able to implement unique solutions to some of the challenges created by this never-before-seen scenario -- it's just unfortunate the organization wasn't willing to apply those same standards and solutions to the cause of winter sports athletes, too. 

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