The NCAA’s decision to cancel all winter and spring sports seasons due to the Coronavirus pandemic seemingly served as the abrupt end to thousands of collegiate athletes’ careers. But a movement – aided by the support of high-profile coaches and administrators (think: Coach K, Oklahoma A.D. Joe Castiglione) – to give those impacted one additional year of eligibility gained serious momentum late last week. On Friday morning (3.13), the Division I Council Coordination Committee wrote in a letter to athletic directors that it would be “appropriate to grant relief for the use of a season of competition for student-athletes who have participated in spring sports.” The Committee added that it “also [plans to] discuss issues related to seasons of competition for winter sport student-athletes who were unable to participate in conference and NCAA championships.”
Howie Long-Short: To be clear, the Committee’s comments do not represent a definitive decision to accommodate student-athletes whose seasons were impacted by the outbreak. Many of the details – including those relating to scholarship limits and financial aid – still need to be ironed out. No timetable was given on their decisions, though the group said it would work to review the issues in a “timely manner.”
Athletic programs allocated scholarships for the 2020-2021 freshman class under the presumption that the current senior class will have exhausted its eligibility, so giving those student-athletes the chance to return would likely push many programs over the scholarship limit. It is certainly within the NCAA’s power to bend bylaws, but it’s important to consider that doing so could upset the competitive balance that the limits are designed to protect.
The NCAA will also need to determine if non-seniors are entitled to ‘eligibility relief’. While it only seems fair to give every winter and spring student-athlete the chance to ‘make-up’ the lost season (or post-season), doing so would either drive up athletic department costs over the next few years (because the number of scholarships increased) or result in fewer scholarships being available for students in the high school classes of 2021, 2022 and 2023.
One group of five A.D. told JohnWallStreet that his/her “back of the napkin math” indicated that the financial exposure schools would face from temporarily extending student-athlete eligibility should be “bearable over a short period of time.” While the costs associated with increasing scholarship limits would be material, he/she said his/her department would fundraise – and perhaps look to the University to take on some of the administrative support needed – to make it work.
The costs associated with the granting ‘eligibility relief’ will vary from school to school and largely depend on the parameters the NCAA ultimately sets. Our source said that if 25% of his/her school’s current senior class took them up on the offer it would cost the athletic department +/- $205,000, if 75% came back it would cost +/- $615,000, if 100% elected to return it would cost +/- $820,000 and if winter sports athletes were also included in the plan the total bill would exceed $1 million next year (for perspective, their total scholarship budget is $9 million). Of course, that’s not going to happen. Many student-athletes will decide that graduating and starting their professional careers is the most desirable option – particularly those not on a full scholarship. It’s believed that once much of the initial disappointment dissipates and those impacted evaluate their post-graduate opportunities “no more than 25% to 50% of eligible students would choose to return.”
If it’s feasible for a G5 school to fund an increase in scholarships, it reasons to believe that members of the power five conferences will have no problem fitting the bill. While some of those schools have more student-athletes (because they compete in more sports) and thus face greater financial exposure, they bring in significantly more revenue. The athletic departments most likely to feel the financial burden of extending eligibility are private group of five schools where “they don’t have P5 resources and the cost of their scholarships are very high.”
Fan Marino: There is one additional consideration that the NCAA will need to account for before it issues its decisions – the dramatic toll Coronavirus is about to take on higher-eduction. Many schools were already facing financial difficulties and the prospect of unexpectedly losing revenues (think: 1/2 semester of housing, meal plans) certainly won’t improve their standing. One P5 A.D. suggested that “most institutions will be looking at furloughs. Most institutions will be looking at program cuts. There will be institutions that don’t re-open at the end of this pandemic because this pushes them into bankruptcy.” Looking at it through that lens, it’s hard to argue that a school should spend hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of dollars – even if they are coming through donations – on athletics.
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