By Miles Montgomery
The wildfire-esque emergence of COVID-19 across the world, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, has turned life as we know it upside down. I am currently sitting at my home desk writing this, when I should be debating the intricacies of political economy in Palmer Hall at Colorado College.
No corner of American society has been spared, not even its arguably most venerated pillar: sports. It has been a little over two weeks since the National Basketball Association suspended the 2019-2020 season, after Utah Jazz big man Rudy Gobert tested positive for the virus. Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer and the National Hockey League quickly followed suit, setting a professional precedent for cancellation and suspension.
On March 12, another bombshell was dropped. National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) president Mark Emmert and the NCAA Board of Governors cancelled the Division I men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, as well as the remainder of the winter sports and spring sports championships.
Thousands of seniors hoping for their last hurrah as college athletes had their seasons brutally cut short, a tragic end to careers filled with sacrifices made to enjoy the satisfaction of playing their favorite sport at the next level. I personally witnessed the Wesleyan women’s lacrosse team sitting in the hallway of El Pomar, with the underclassmen signs thanking their seniors for their years of service and leadership, when they had just learned of the cancellations and the mandatory self-quarantine that awaited them upon their return to Middletown, Conn.
Amid the sea of broken hearts, a pressing question arose among many athletes nationwide: would the NCAA provide an extra year of eligibility to athletes whose seasons were cut short or cancelled altogether? An Instagram account aptly titled redshirtcoronayear, referring to the designation given to athletes who have participated in a college’s academic year but not the sports season, garnered over 300,000 likes on its first post, imploring the NCAA to grant an extra year of eligibility for all affected athletes.
One day after the cancellation announcement was made, the NCAA agreed in principle to offer spring sport athletes in all three divisions an extra year of eligibility. NCAA Divisions III and II made this agreement official on March 13 and March 20, respectively. The Division I Council’s formal vote, which took place Monday, March 30, also favored prolonging spring sport eligibility.
Winter sports, on the other hand, have been denied extended eligibility. This represents a crushing blow to male and female basketball players especially, as the cancellation came close to the scheduled start of March Madness.
While an extra year of eligibility for spring sport athletes is certainly ethically the right thing for the NCAA to do, it will create quite a conundrum. In Division III, where there are no athletic scholarships, the process will be straightforward. However, in both Division II and Division I, where most athletes have some form of athletic scholarship, the aftermath of awarding an extra year of eligibility will be extremely complex. Now, teams must make room for both their incoming freshman and their super seniors who wish to complete their four years of eligibility, creating a slew of logistical problems. Navigating these waters will be very difficult for both NCAA administrators as well as athletic directors and coaches.
The NCAA is working to address these problems. Efforts include loosened limits on DI and DII roster sizes and scholarship allocations for the 2020-2021 spring season, which could alleviate some concerns regarding balancing the scholarship needs of incoming freshmen and returning seniors.
Eligibility extension could pose a grave financial crisis for smaller Division I and Division II colleges and universities, whose athletic budgets and scholarship money run thin as is. In response, the NCAA has made their Student Assistance Fund available to pay for extended-eligibility scholarships in 2020-21. Additionally, the NCAA stipulates that each college can decide whether or not next year’s extended-eligibility aid is equal to athletic aid in 2019-2020.
With annual revenue topping $1 billion annually, mostly due to television rights, the NCAA is in a prime position to remedy some of its criticism for exploiting its athletes for profit without pay. Hopefully, having made the ethical choice to award spring sport athletes an extra year of eligibility, the NCAA will follow through with further decisions conducive to the well-being of college athletes.