COVID-19’s Legal Ramifications Part 3: The Year of the 5th Year Senior

This series is a discussion of the legal issues in the sports world amid the novel coronavirus. This is a first for our forum, where each of our contributors will be authoring at least one post, discussing either the sports world now, or what will likely happen in the future, during this unprecedented time. One post will be published each day, focusing on a new topic. Please check in each day for updates and feel free to comment with your questions or comments. Together, we will navigate this new landscape. #ubsportslaw #ublawsportsforum

The Year of the 5th Year Senior

Three weeks after the NCAA canceled all spring and winter championships due to the Coronavirus, the NCAA voted to allow spring athletes another year of eligibility. Since most winter sports were over at the time of the shut down, the NCAA decided not to include them in the extended eligibility. The NCAA Division I rules limit student-athletes to four seasons of competition in a five-year period, thus the decision to extend eligibility was a departure from the NCAA stated rules. However, the NCAA deems the recourse as an “appropriate grant of relief” for those athletes who would have participated in spring sports had the pandemic not occurred.

The extension of eligibility and the expansion of NCAA bylaws provides relief for student-athletes who did not get their chance to compete, but does this waiver provide relief for those schools that are now expected to honor that very extension? In times where Coronavirus is sweeping the world and millions are loosing their jobs, the NCAA is giving schools the pleasure of trying to come up with more scholarships and more money. The NCAA requires schools to have limitations on the number of players they can have on rosters and imposes further limitations on the programs’ financial situations. Therefore, by extending eligibility and eliminating roster size requirements, the NCAA is leaving the schools to pick up the heavy financial burden. So how will the schools pay? Most schools likely want to provide their spring student-athletes with an opportunity to compete in the next playing season, but how will they pay for it? Will the NCAA help? Unfortunately, the financial cost of the ruling will not fall on the NCAA, but rather on the schools. The NCAA has indicated that spring athletes will be allowed to return to their respective schools in 2020-21, however the NCAA is giving “individual schools the flexibility to make decisions at a campus level,” NCAA Council Chair M. Grace Calhoun stated. She continued, “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.”

This directive allows the schools the option of providing equal or less aid to seniors who are returning for an extra season in 2020-21. Thus, the school does not have to honor the senior’s scholarship, and if that senior attempts to transfer to another school, then their scholarship will count towards the new team’s scholarship limits. This means that if a school does not honor a senior’s extended eligibility, it may be more difficult for that senior to transfer to another school, because the new school may already have a full roster. The NCAA addressed this concern by increasing the roster limit in baseball for student-athletes impacted by the pandemic, however baseball is the only sport with such an increased limit.

Although the NCAA is not going to pay for the student’s scholarships, they are advising schools to use the NCAA’s Student Assistance Fund to pay for scholarships for students who take advantage of the extended eligibility. The NCAA Student Assistance Fund started when the NCAA disbursed $200 million in additional financial assistance to member schools to support programs that benefit the student-athletes. The NCAA describes the fund as assisting the student-athletes with their “academic success, life skills, career success, health and safety, and student-athlete-focused diversity in inclusion initiatives.” However, it is unclear how helpful this fund will be to schools given that the NCAA has made massive slashes to the funding of member schools in light of the cancellation of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. The NCAA announced that it would pay out only $225 million of the projected $600-million annual distributions to Division I schools. Thus, not only are schools struggling to figure out how they are going to pay for the upcoming year, but they are also faced with the possibility that the school’s cash cow, football, doesn’t happen in the fall.

“I think this was a decision made with the heart, trying to support student-athletes that didn’t have the opportunity they’d thought they’d have. But when the head kicks in, and you figure out how you’re going to pay for it and what other implications there will be for student-athletes, I think that’s a recognition that for many conferences and schools theres a fiscal reality to this.”

Pac-12 Commissioner, Larry Scott

According to USA Today, the NCAA granting an additional season of eligibility will cost Power 5 schools anywhere from $500,000 to $900,000 each, and non-Power 5 schools about $400,000. Lynn Hickey, the Athletic Director for Eastern Washington, stated “in our situation, how do we come up with the funds for the extra scholarships that we weren’t counting on? Quite honestly, I don’t know how we would pay for it.” Hickey continued to say that granting the extended eligibility may be the right thing to do, “but realistically, I don’t know how we would pull it off without help.” USC Women’s Lacrosse coach Lindsey Munday referenced the potential uneven playing field by stating, “not all schools are going to be able to afford that, so then are you planning on this very uneven playing field?” As mentioned in COVID-19’s Legal Ramifications Part 2, the lack of NCAA funded assistance benefits schools who can already afford it, “thus widening the gap between the powerful and the rest of the group.”

Not only are the senior student-athletes in limbo regarding their scholarships, coaches of respective schools are facing salary reductions, being laid off or furloughed and possibly having their entire program shut down. Iowa State is the first Power 5 School to announce pay reductions for coaches in 2020. Jamie Pollard, Athletic Director for Iowa State, stated that their coaches would take a “one-year, temporary pay reduction for athletics department coaches and certain staff.” The entire plan will save Iowa State a total of $4 million in the upcoming year. Other actions that Pollard is taking to reduce costs also include a one-year suspension of all bonus incentives for all coaches.  Thus begging the question, how are schools supposed to pay for these extra scholarships if a Power 5 school can’t even pay their coaches? Further, there are even worse consequences to the NCAA’s cut in funding, as some programs are being shut down. Cincinnati has shut down their men’s soccer program due to athletic budget restrictions amid the Coronavirus pandemic. The ending of Cincinnati’s men soccer team marks the beginning of other schools cutting sports programs to deal with the lack of revenue coming in.

So while entire individual sport programs are shutting down and coaches face reduced salaries and furloughs, schools are still left to determine how they will provide the seniors of spring sports with an extended year of eligibility. If the Power 5 can’t even afford to keep their staff and Cincinnati is already cancelling men’s soccer, it is likely that most spring sport athletes will be paying to play themselves, if they want to take the opportunity to regain that lost Senior season.

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