Division I Council To Weigh Granting Spring Sports Extra Year Of Eligibility

The NCAA’s Division I Council on Monday will discuss and vote on eligibility relief for spring sports athletes, effectively deciding whether or not to give athletes an extra year of college eligibility to account for the cancellation of the 2020 season due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Much is hinging on the vote. Players are waiting to find out how many years of college they have left and, in the case of seniors, whether their careers are over. Coaches must know who will be eligible to return next season and what class all their players are in. Recruits will find out what kind of depth chart they will be walking into. Administrators need to know how much they will need to budget.

Division I is the last collegiate governing body to make a decision on eligibility following the cancellations. Division II, Division III, NAIA and the National Junior College Athletics Association have all already ruled in favor of eligibility relief.

The Division I Council Coordination Committee announced March 13, the day after the College World Series was canceled, that it supported eligibility relief in principle. It doubled down on that a week later in a statement.

“In principle, the coordination committee agrees relief should be extended to spring sport student-athletes and supports providing schools with a framework in which they would have the autonomy to make their own decisions in the best interest of their campus, conference and student-athletes.”

But the final decision will lie with the full Division I Council, a body baseball fans became familiar with last spring when it rejected a proposal that would have converted the volunteer assistant coach into a full-time, salaried position. Every Division I conference is represented on the council, which also includes two student representatives, two faculty representatives and four conference commissioners. Votes from the Power Five conferences (and their commissioners) are weighted four times and votes from Group of Five conferences (and their commissioners) are weighted double. All other votes are weighted normally.

The makeup of the Council makes it possible for the Power Five to largely get their way—if they can come together on a decision. It is not clear that they have in this case. SEC commissioner Greg Sankey has publicly supported eligibility relief for all spring athletes, but no other Power Five commissioner has joined him in doing so.

So, what options does the Council have as it explores eligibility relief? Anything and everything is on the table in an unprecedented situation. But it likely will come down to one of three options:

  1. Grant an extra year of eligibility to all spring sports athletes.
  2. Grant an extra year of eligibility to seniors in spring sports.
  3. Grant no eligibility relief.

The first option is what every other collegiate governing body has taken. The logic behind it is simple: in an unprecedented action, the season was canceled less than a third of the way into the schedule. In baseball, if a player had gone down with a season-ending injury on March 12, the day the College World Series was canceled, he would have been eligible for a medical redshirt. So, in any other year, a player who had his season end at the same time would have gotten an extra year of eligibility.

Doing so, however, would come at a price. USA Today estimated that granting just seniors an extra year of eligibility would cost Power Five schools anywhere from $500,000 to $900,000. That cost could be repeated for the next four years if every spring athlete were granted an extra year of eligibility. Schools outside of the Power Five would face lower total costs.

That’s not insignificant money in the best of times financially, but these are not the best financial times. The stock market’s downward trend in recent weeks hurts schools’ endowments and the NCAA lowering its annual payout to schools from $600 million to $225 million, following the cancellation of its winter and spring championships, is another pinch on budgets.

The simplest way to accomplish that aim would be to a blanket application of a waiver that already exists for student-athletes in extenuating circumstances. That waiver requires that a players’ aid remains unchanged, which would in this case force schools to carry extra scholarships (and presumably extra players to account for the newcomers who have already signed National Letters of Intent), thus the extra expenses for schools. Rules like baseball’s limits on scholarships (11.7) and players on a roster (35) would have to be relaxed.

The Council also could grant eligibility relief but not require schools to leave a players’ aid unchanged. That could be left up to schools or conferences to decide, perhaps even on a case-by-case basis. That could mean within one program that a player gets offered a spot back, but none of their scholarship money, while another player is brought back at 100 percent of what they received in 2020. That, in turn, would lead to some very difficult decisions for everyone involved.

The Council—and everyone else in the equation—got more information late Thursday night when reports of the deal between MLB and the Players’ Association broke. Included in the deal was word that the draft could be pushed back to July and limited to no less than five rounds (though MLB can decide to add more rounds). Bonuses for undrafted free agents would be capped at $20,000. A five-round MLB draft with that kind of restriction on undrafted free agents means that there will be a loot of draft-eligible players returning to college next year, regardless of whether eligibility relief is approved. 

If the Council now does approve relief, given that environment, the NCAA and the Baseball Committee would have a very difficult balancing act given the overload of players in the system, which would get pushed from returning seniors, juniors unexpectedly returning to college and a larger than normal crop of freshmen. Were rosters to remain capped at 35 players, there would be a lot of difficult conversations around the country and players would be cut. But the 35-man roster limit was put in specifically to stop teams from rostering 40-50 players and hoarding talent. 

It’s an incredibly difficult spot for everyone. What’s best for the players isn’t necessarily best for the schools, which has made this a crippling debate. College coaches have seen this coming for the last two weeks, which was part of the impetus for Sacramento State’s Reggie Christiansen and Wofford’s Todd Interdonato to craft a plan to finish the 2020 baseball season in the fall, thereby eliminating the need for eligibility relief.

“If they give the year back, my first thought was, ‘How do you manage scholarshiping five classes even for one year? How do you manage that from compliance and where does money come from?’ ” he said. “Then think about residual effects, ‘What happens to APR? What happens to transfer rate, student-athlete experience, where does it go?’

“You’re looking at embarking on something that could get really snippy and personal. How do you give these guys a year back, if the NCAA choses to do so, without causing five-year problem? You just have to finish 2020 before you start 2021. All of us were disappointed in cancellations. Every day that goes by you get more understanding. But if you can figure out a way to give all these spring sports athletes a year back without impacting four-five years down the line, that’s the best of both worlds.”

The good news is that MLB’s decision on the draft came before the Division I Council has to make a decision. It at least can consider what a five-round draft would mean for college baseball as it deliberates. 

But, for now, everyone in college baseball can only sit and wait for its decision.

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