Elite Eligibility and The Ivy League: How The Ivy League Has Handled COVID-19 and Student-Athlete Eligibility

Imagine having last year’s sports season taken away from you. Not because of an injury or insufficient grade point average, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Heartbreaking. Now, imagine having it taken away for a second time in less than a year. Absolutely defeating. That’s what happened to Ivy League winter and spring sports. The Ivy League announced last November that it would be cancelling winter sports for the 2020-21 season and announced a few weeks ago that the League would not have a spring 2021 season, either. For the athletes, words cannot describe the emotions, the pain, the hurt. Especially after seeing other leagues playing and successfully keeping the coronavirus out.

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Ivy League schools are considered to be the most prestigious of all colleges in the United States. These elite schools are thought to be the most outstanding and the most sought-after in terms of acceptance and graduation and athletics does not fall short of that legacy (but that’s for another post). For some student-athletes, athletics provides the path to an “Ivy education” that they may not have otherwise received. For others, athletics is just an extracurricular activity on their forward path to success. Given the elite nature of the schools, it only makes sense that they have an elite athletic eligibility rule, right?

The NCAA has a general eligibility rule requiring all student-athletes to “complete [ ] [their] seasons of participation within five calendar years from the beginning of the semester or quarter in which the student-athlete first registered for a minimum full-time program,” also known as the “Five-Year Rule.” Basically, a student-athlete has five year to play their four seasons of intercollegiate competition in any one sport. Certain events, such as injury, pregnancy, armed service, etc., may lead to a waiver of the Five-Year Rule. The Five-Year Rule and a waiver of such allows for the participation of graduate level student-athletes in all sports, except in any Ivy League sport. Unlike other Division I conferences, the Ivy League requires all athletes “to exercise their eligibility in the first four years of enrollment at a member institution,” which means no graduate student-athletes.

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When the NCAA cancelled spring sports last March due the COVID-19 pandemic, it quickly rectified the situation by granting a blanket waiver to all spring athletes granting them an extra year of eligibility, and therefore, waiving the Five-Year Rule for some student-athletes. The Ivy League, however, did not budge on their “founding principles” and did not extend the waiver to its student-athletes. There were various ways for student-athletes to get around this, such as withdrawing in the middle of the semester, but things could have been made infinitely easier for student-athletes had the League just overlooked its “founding principle.”

Again, when things were still unknown for the beginning of this winter season, the NCAA granted another blanket waiver in December for all Division I transfer students, allowing them to play immediately (typically transferring students have to complete one year in residence at the new school before they can play (“the Year in Residence Rule“)). But here, while the most other NCAA Division I leagues were having a winter season, the Ivy League was not and did nothing to remedy the situation.

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It was not until February 12, 2021, three months after cancelling winter sports and seven months after cancelling fall sports, that the Ivy League gave anything to its student-athletes. The Ivy League Council of Presidents approved the opportunity for current senior-students to play an additional season as graduate students next season. The statement obtained by ESPN made it clear that the rule change is a one-time waiver, which means that it will not apply to freshmen, sophomores, or juniors at Ivy League schools. So, what does that mean? Does this now incentivize non-senior student-athletes to enter the transfer portal to explore options? Does it entice them to transfer to get their full four years of eligibility elsewhere?

The question really comes down to why these kids attend an Ivy League school. Are they a “student-athlete” or “athlete-student?” If a kid is the former, he or she will likely remain at the institution because they are there to get that esteemed Ivy education and athletics is just a nice bonus. If a kid is the latter, the chances that he or she enters the transfer portal likely increases. My concern is that Ivy athletic departments will face tremendous setbacks in terms of competitiveness in certain sports, depending on the number of athletes who transfer. And it seems like this should be more of a conversation among Ivy athletic departments. But who knows? Athletics is not what “drives the bus” per se at Ivy schools. The League and individual administrations may not be concerned at all and are relying on their reputation as academic institutions to entice student-athletes to stay.

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