NCAA restores year of eligibility for athletes who lost season due to coronavirus

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College athletes who had their 2020 seasons canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic will have a year of eligibility restored by the NCAA.

The NCAA Division I Council, which consists of 40 administrators across all of the Division I conferences, voted on the matter on Monday and concluded that athletes in spring sports should be granted an additional year to participate. The sports impacted include baseball, softball, lacrosse, tennis, golf, track and others.

However, winter sport athletes who had their seasons cut short — like men’s basketball players unable to participate in postseason tournaments — will not be granted an additional year.

“Council members declined to extend eligibility for student-athletes in sports where all or much of their regular seasons were completed,” the NCAA said in a press release.

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NCAA rules generally limit student-athletes to four seasons of competition in a five-year period. Now, schools will be able to apply for a waiver to restore a year of competition for a student-athlete who was poised to compete while eligible in a season shortened by the coronavirus outbreak.

With seniors eligible to return for another season, previously determined scholarship limits will be amended to accommodate those seniors and incoming freshmen. However, schools will have the ability to adjust the amount of financial aid provided to athletes who “would have had exhausted their eligibility in 2019-20” for the extra year. Schools will be permitted to use the NCAA’s Student Assistance Fund to pay for the additional scholarship season.

From the NCAA:

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.

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

The news comes more than two weeks after the Division I Council Coordination Committee said in a release that its leadership agreed that “eligibility relief” was “appropriate for all Division I student-athletes who participated in spring sports.” The NCAA’s Division II administrative committee previously voted to restore a year of eligibility for all spring sport athletes at the D2 level.

Final Four flag fly over the headquarter of the NCAA in Indianapolis, Thursday, March 12, 2020. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Final Four flag fly over the headquarter of the NCAA in Indianapolis, Thursday, March 12, 2020. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Financial ramifications

Though the decision to restore eligibility for the affected athletes felt like a no-brainer on the surface, there are plenty of ramifications to the decision — especially from a financial perspective.

Last week, USA Today projected that giving an additional season to only seniors on spring sports teams “could cost public schools in the Power Five conferences anywhere from $500,000 to $900,000.” Schools outside the Power Five conferences — the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC — would likely “face lower amounts,” per USA Today, as would most FCS schools.

Facing those costs during a year where the NCAA distributed significantly less in revenue than it anticipated due to the cancellation of March Madness is going to dramatically impact budgets for many schools. The NCAA announced last week that it will distribute $225 million to its Division I members in June, down from the nearly $600 million it initially projected.

March Madness is a massive source of NCAA revenue. Last year, the NCAA estimated it would receive $827 million from broadcast and licensing rights (the NCAA has an $8.8 billion deal with CBS and Turner) from the men’s basketball tournament in 2020. Though the NCAA said last week it has a $270 million event cancellation insurance policy, it is not clear how it will work through the previously scheduled agreements with its television partners.

Coupling the money lost from the cancellation of March Madness with the uncertainty surrounding the upcoming football season (will fall semester even start on time?) creates tremendous uncertainty for universities now faced with the need to dole out additional scholarship money.

When announcing the decline in revenue shares, Ohio State president Michael V. Drake, the chair of the NCAA’s Board of Governors, said “a variety of cost-cutting measures” would begin in the coming weeks.

Student-athlete group recommended more

Before Monday’s vote, the Power Five conference representatives of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee released a statement detailing its recommendations for athletes affected by the COVID-19 outbreak.

Before addressing eligibility concerns, the group expressed the need to assist athletes who are “struggling to pay for food and housing due to the effects of COVID-19” and called for the use of the Student Assistance Fund to assist athletes faced with “unforeseen circumstances and burdens.”

Next, the group recommended that eligibility relief be given to athletes from spring sports and to winter athletes whose teams qualified for the postseason “and were unable to complete the entirety of their season.”

The group’s third and final recommendation was for returning seniors to have their scholarships renewed and not count toward financial aid limits.

“Many senior athletes have expressed financial strain and an inability to return without scholarship protection,” the statement said. “Eligibility relief should be accessible. Roster limits and competition fields should also be expanded to accommodate returning seniors and incoming freshmen.”

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