Hey, NCAA Division I: It’s the right call, but will the schools buy in?

While Division I spring sport athletes have been offered an additional year of eligibility, the question remains as to whether these schools will choose to bear their financial burden. 

Today, NCAA Division I member institutions voted to extend an extra year of eligibility to spring sport athletes.  This vote echoes the decision NCAA Division II made ten days ago.

In order to help institutions accommodate those athletes who chose to return to campus for an additional year, Division I chose to “adjust 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.”  Acccordingly, pre-existing scholarship caps and roster limitations for spring sports will be lifted to enable those athletes in their final year of eligibility to compete next year without taking away the scholarship opportunities and roster spots from incoming recruits. 

 

Division I made the right call, albeit a pretty easy one.

Extending another year of eligibility to athletes who did not have the opportunity to compete in the bulk of their conference season, let alone their year-end championships, is a no-brainer.  What remains to be seen is if these schools are able and/or choose to financially support bringing these athletes back to campus.

Notably, the decision to extend this extra year of eligibility is couched with an important caveat: “schools [are provided] 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.”

So, while a school can grant an athlete the same scholarship she received for the 2019-20 season, it is not required to match that aid if she chooses to return for the 2020-21 season–or provide any scholarship for that matter.  Put simply, while a 2019-20 scholarship athlete can choose to play again next year, there is no guarantee (and by my prediction, unlikely) that the athlete will be given any financial aid.

This caveat comes as no surprise, however.  Just four days ago, the NCAA reported it would distribute only $225 million to its Division I institutions–an estimated $375 million less than last year’s distribution.

 

And this impact will be felt from the Power Five to the FCS.  According to Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, he anticipates his 10-member conference will receive $10 million–$14 million less than 2019).  At the lower end of the revenue-generating Division I spectrum, SWAC Commissioner Charles McClelland noted that the distribution is primarily how his member schools fund summer school and other academic support for their athletes.  SWAC schools will have to find this support somewhere else now.

Thus, schools have to come to grips with a serious decision–will they support athletes who want to return to campus, and if so, how will they fund it?

It is more than likely that the majority of Power 5 schools will be able to provide this support.  The question is whether they choose to.  Does it make sense for a school that generates so much of its revenue from football and basketball to re-route its now lessened financial resources to fund an extra year for an athlete who costs the athletics department money; especially with the economy the way it is trending?  I would hope so, especially if it cuts back the seven-figure Power 5 football and basketball coaching salaries (unlikely).

As for the smaller schools, there is no doubt that conference distributions have a significant impact on their annual budget, and, by extension, the non-revenue-generating olympic sports that so many of the spring sports are (e.g. baseball, golf, outdoor track and field, softball, tennis and volleyball).  Many, if not most of these programs function on small operating budgets with fewer than the permitted scholarships.  Even if a sport has full scholarship funding, especially in men’s sports given Title IX restrictions, the roster spots far outnumber the scholarships.  Full scholarships are a myth.

While there is no doubt these athletics departments consider many of these potentially-returning athletes important to their programs and/or culture, nearly every single one of them is a negative line item.  They cost the school money (with the exception of baseball players at those few schools that are able to pack their stadiums with fans–again, mostly Power 5).  Especially for those schools already operating on a thin budget, in the wake of historically low conference distributions, the only way many of these students could be coming back outside of a massive donation, is on their own dime.

And as such, it appears that the individuals who will bear the majority of the burden of today’s decision are the student-athletes.  While I empathize with their situation, I do not envy it.  I know how much value I placed on my personal experience as a student-athlete.  As a captain of my Division I mid-major team, being a student-athlete was at the core of who I was (and, to a large degree, still is).  To not be afforded the opportunity to play for one last championship seems all but heartbreaking.  Combine that with the harsh realities of spiking tuition costs in a declining economy with potentially limited job prospects and no guarantee of financial aid.  That’s a scary decision for anyone to stare down, let alone a twenty-something trying to decide what his or her uncertain future holds.

There is no easy answer to this question.  These schools must navigate the balance between the student-athlete experience, and the student-athlete expense.  While much will depend on the institution’s ability to raise or re-allocate money, and be creative, in the end, it all comes down to what the university values.  Hopefully, they can find a plausible way to choose their athletes.

Finally, in these trying times, it is incredibly important to take care of each other.  Stay home.  Wash your hands.  Check in on friends and loved ones.  Flatten the curve.

Photo Credit: AP Photo/Michael Conroy 

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