Hey, NCAA: Your Athletes Need You

The NCAA’s obligation to winter and spring sport athletes whose careers were cut short due to COVID-19 is just beginning, as institutions, conferences, and the NCAA must take proactive steps to those support athletes who must navigate an unprecedented transition away from college athletics. 

On Monday, members of NCAA Division I voted to extend spring sport athletes whose season was cut short by the coronavirus pandemic an additional season of eligibility.  They also chose not to extend an additional season to winter sport athletes.

In its press release, Division I’s justification was simple: “[c]ouncil members declined to extend eligibility for student-athletes in sports where all or much of their regular seasons were completed.”  Thus, where most spring sports were just beginning to enter the heart of their regular seasons, most winter sports were finished with their regular seasons and were entering into, or had finished their championship seasons.

Granting an extra year of eligibility would be unprecedented, and cause the NCAA major headaches (beyond the numerous class-action lawsuits and pay-for-play bills in state legislatures across the country).  For instance, should athletes who did not lose in a conference tournament or national championship (i.e. not have an official end to their eligibility) have the right to come back and play next year?  A team may simply not have lost because their conference tournament was scheduled for a later television slot.

Further, even if these athletes were granted additional eligibility, how much eligibility would they receive?  If they participated in, say, 90% of their season, how much of their season could they come back for the following year? 10%? 25%? A full season?  It does not seem reasonable to allow an athlete to play another full season.  At the same time, would it be worth granting her the opportunity to play only three games the following season; especially if, as a winter sport athlete, she be required to attend two more semesters at her institution.

The scenarios are endless.  It is a compliance nightmare.  So, the NCAA made the most practical decision.

But just because the decision not to extend additional eligibility to winter sport athletes was practical does not mean the NCAA can simply walk away from their obligations to these young men and women. On the contrary, the NCAA owes an even greater duty to the student-athletes whose careers were cut short to ensure their mental health is taken care of.

The transition away from NCAA athletics can be a daunting task for any graduating senior.  For nearly every NCAA student-athlete that has ever competed in intercollegiate athletics, at least they experience some closure.  A last game.  A championship.  A decision to step away from the game.  There was some quantifiable point in time that they could identify as the moment their college career ended on their own terms.  And even then, student-athletes struggle with stepping away.

This year, student-athletes face an even greater challenge for what I am branding as the NCAA Graduating Class of COVID-19.  For many winter sport athletes, there will be no closure.  There will be no end point.  Instead, there will just be a declaration that their eligibility has expired; that their career is over.  And not because they lost.  It also is more than likely this will be the case for many more spring sport athletes who, although extended an additional year of eligibility, are unable to play next year because their schools cannot afford to bring them back to campus.

And that will pose a significant challenge to young people who have spent their lives working towards a goal, which now they will never know if they could have achieved.

Take, for example, this year’s Division II wrestling championships.  Former University at Buffalo wrestler and 2017 UB law graduate, Taylor Golba, detailed for me how wrestlers were informed their season was over through a loud speaker announcement while on the practice mat the day before weigh-ins.  “These wrestlers were trying to achieve this dream since the first day they set foot on the mat, some of them at four or five years old,” Golba said.  “Wrestling is a sport you can’t go pro.  [NCAA Championships] are the pinnacle for so many of these guys. . . . It was just taken away from them.”

Golba was in contact with numerous coaches present at the D-II championships.  As a someone who lived through those moments, “to hear what was going on through their words made it that much more real.”  And while he understands the NCAA’s decision, he also knows full well that it will not be easy on his fellow wrestlers.

And thus, NCAA, Conferences, and institutions, it is your responsibility more than ever to provide resources for the Class of COVID-19.  Graduating college has become one of the last rites of passage in our society.  For student-athletes, this rite of passage includes the opportunity for one last run at a championship.  With that opportunity stripped, mental health resources must be available to these students.  Combine that with a declining economy with potentially limited job prospects.  That’s scary–for anyone.  These athletes must be provided the opportunity to speak with someone, to learn techniques to combat anxiety and/or depression, to be offered career services resources to help find what that next step is, and to otherwise work through this unprecedented transition.

Regardless of how much money was lost because March Madness did not occur this year, there can be no excuse for failing to provide these athletes the resources they need to navigate this moment in their lives.  Since the advent of big-time college athletics, NCAA administrators, conferences, and individual institutions have been making money hand over fist, which  manifested in seven-figure coaching salaries and nine-figure distributions.  It is now on athletics departments, conference staff, and NCAA administrators to find the necessary resources to help these young men and women, because in the end, the NCAA’s goal has to be supporting its athletes, no matter what the cost.

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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Attorney. University at Buffalo School of Law alum. Former legal intern and hitting partner at the US Open. Former Division I athlete and assistant coach at Davidson College.

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