NCAA Extends Eligibility for Winter Sports Athletes

You get another year, you get another year, everybody gets another year of eligibility! After months of uncertainty due to COVID-19, the NCAA Division I Council announced on Wednesday that it would be granting an additional year of eligibility to all winter sports athletes who compete during the 2020-21 season. The ruling affects various sports, including hockey, skiing, basketball, wrestling, gymnastics, and indoor track and field. Most of these sports had their national championships canceled last spring by the NCAA as the COVID-19 outbreak spread in the United States.

Even though winter sport student-athletes may get something close to their regular length season, the NCAA nevertheless decided to approve the extended eligibility. The ruling may allow winter sport student-athletes to play their entire season and still retain that eligibility year. 

Image Credit: Darron Cummings / Associated Press

The extension is similar to the extra year that the NCAA afforded to spring and fall sports athletes, with a noticeable difference: the spring and fall sports athletes likely could not compete in their seasons. Of course, there are outliers. For example, all of the Ivy League decided to cancel all fall sports due to COVID-19, while the Big-10 and Pac 12 reversed their decisions to postpone all fall sports in part because of significant changes in medical protocols and an enhanced cardiac screening approach.

The fall season’s inconsistency enticed the NCAA to provide an extended year of eligibility for the fall sport athletes. The fall sports extension gives all fall-sport athletes an extra year of eligibility, regardless of how many games they play. Athletes typically have five years to complete four seasons of eligibility. However, the board has also extended the eligibility clock so that players have another full season of competition.

Image Credit: Twitter / @InsidetheNCAA

“The pandemic will continue to impact winter sports seasons in ways we can’t predict. Council members opted to provide for winter sport student-athletes the same flexibility given spring and fall sports previously,” Council Chair Grace Calhoun said in a statement prepared by the NCAA. “The actions today ensure the continuation of local decision-making in the best interest of each institution and its student-athletes.”

Although there was some evidence that winter sports may proceed with a sense of normalcy, the NCAA-rule makers were concerned that student-athletes would opt out or red-shirt this year because of the year’s unpredictability. Calhoun told ESPN that “we felt it was important to make this decision now so student-athletes had the peace of mind to go into this season and compete,” and “. . . now they can regain that eligibility and have their clock automatically extended, so they’re not taking that chance on the front end if they choose to compete.”

Student-athletes will now have the opportunity to restructure their academic careers, gain a master’s degree, or add another major. However, institutions will have the discretion of whether to renew the student-athletes’ extended scholarships. For example, after the spring season was canceled, Wisconsin was the first Big Ten athletic department to announce that it would not seek waivers to restore senior athletes’ final year of eligibility.

Many institutions have experienced a deficit resulting from COVID-19 and may not be able to afford to renew the seniors’ scholarships for another year. The University of Connecticut Women’s Basketball Coach Geno Auriemma said his fellow coaches might object to the adjusted eligibility rule, stating in part that “But I think you’re going to have a lot of coaches that are going to go, ‘You’re putting me in a tough spot here.’ Because now you’re going to have some seniors go, ‘Hey, I want to stay.’ And then you’ve got a coach going, like, ‘I wasn’t planning on you staying.’ Now what are you going to do — turn the kid out?” Geno went on to explain that he understands the extended eligibility for fall and spring sports, “but how are you going to let somebody play a whole season and give them another year?”

Image Credit: SportsRecruits Blog

The NCAA has taken a turn towards increasing student-athlete benefits. What remains unclear is how institutions are supposed to keep up with the continually changing NCAA. Suppose institutions are not bailed out of the monetary deficit. In that case, many institutions will not be able to afford to honor all of their student-athletes’ extra year of eligibility. One thing remains clear; there may be several student-athletes in the transfer portal in the upcoming years, additionally increasing the importance of the passage of the one-time transfer rule. After COVID-19, we all have been in a constant state of change, and the NCAA is no different.

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