Division I Council Grants Spring Sports Athletes Extra Year Of Eligibility

Image credit: Brian Klein (Photo by John Williamson)

The NCAA’s Division I Council on Monday approved a proposal to give eligibility relief to all spring sports athletes, effectively granting athletes an extra year of college eligibility to account for the cancellation of the 2020 season due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

With the vote, Division I joins all other collegiate sports governing bodies in granting extra eligibility due to the loss of the 2020 season. Division II, Division III, NAIA and the National Junior College Athletics Association previously ruled in favor of eligibility relief.

For players who already had eligibility remaining after the 2020 season, their aid will be required to remain at the same level. For 2020 seniors, the NCAA will leave it up to individual schools on a case-by-case basis to determine how much aid to offer athletes. They will be able to offer less aid than they offered a player in 2020 or match it, but not exceed it. That could mean that within one program that a player gets offered a spot back, but none of his scholarship money, while another player is brought back at 100 percent of what he received in 2020.

The Council also adjusted rules to ease baseball’s restrictions of a maximum 35 players on the roster and a maximum of 27 players on scholarship. In effect, returning seniors will not count toward either cap.

The Council’s decision affirms the position of the Division I Council Coordination Committee. On March 13, the day after the NCAA cancelled the College World Series along with every other winter and spring championship, the coordination committee came out in support in principle of eligibility relief. A week later, it double down in a statement. The Student-Athlete Advisory Council also came out publicly in favor of eligibility relief on the eve of the Council’s vote and SEC commissioner Greg Sankey publicly backed it as well.

The final decision lay with the Council, which is primarily composed of athletic directors, representing every conference. In an uncertain financial time, there was a lot of apprehension before the vote that they would not see it the same way.

USA Today estimated that granting seniors an extra year of eligibility would cost Power Five Conference schools anywhere from $500,000 to $900,000. Smaller schools might still incur costs of up to $400,000. Costs to grant every spring athlete an extra year of eligibility will rise even higher.

That’s not insignificant money in the best of times financially and these are not the best financial times. The stock market’s downward trend in recent weeks hurts schools’ endowments and boosters’ ability to donate as much as they have in recent years. Another pinch on budgets came when the NCAA lowered its annual payout to schools from the $600 million it had budgeted to $225 million following the cancellation of its winter and spring championships.

In the end, however, the Council found a way to satisfy both the financial crunch athletic departments will be operating under in the immediate future and still provide student-athletes with a do-over for a lost 2020 season. Athletes, after all, due to an unprecedented action had seen their season 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.

The Council’s decision, as well as the agreement last week between MLB and the Players’ Association that formalized plans for this year’s draft – no less than five rounds (and possibly more) and held by the end of July, with undrafted free agents limited to signing bonuses of no more than $20,000 – gives everyone in college baseball the framework necessary to begin planning for 2021.

Now, around the country, conferences and athletic departments will have to determine their path forward under the NCAA’s new guidelines. Coaches and players alike figure to have some difficult decisions ahead of them.

In a normal year, seniors already get squeezed in the draft. Without any negotiating leverage, they rarely sign six-figure bonuses and even Jake Mangum, who last year was the second-highest drafted senior as a fourth rounder, signed for just $20,000. In a shortened draft, it’s unlikely many seniors will be drafted, limiting the vast majority to $20,000 signing bonuses. Now, however, they will have the opportunity to return to school.

This year’s juniors will also face a difficult decision. The best of the bunch will be drafted and signed to sizeable bonuses as MLB agreed to hold bonus pools about to the same level as they were in 2019. But the shortened draft will also squeeze juniors outside the elite tier.

Last year, 401 juniors were drafted. Of that number, 99 were picked in the top five rounds and 73 were drafted in rounds 6-10. There were 229 college juniors selected after the 10th round. In a five-round draft, many juniors will be forced to choose between a $20,000 bonus now or return to school with two years of eligibility, but with the knowledge that MLB teams increasingly factor age into their draft boards. A 10-round draft would relieve some of that tension, but still leave many juniors with a difficult decision.

Even without the draft’s complications, this year’s seniors are already facing a difficult decision. Many have already made plans for graduate school or lined up a job for after graduation. They will have to decide whether playing another season of college baseball – and the additional cost that inherently comes with that in a partial scholarship sport – are worth it.

Because of those decisions, many coaches are not expecting that even a majority of their seniors return for another season. That calculus may change slightly based on how many rounds comprise the draft and therefore how many seniors get a chance to sign for more than $20,000, but no team should expect to see all of its seniors back in 2021.

The shortened draft is expected to heavily affect the number of prep players drafted. Outside of the elite, few are expected to be selected in a five-round draft. A 10-round draft would see more picked, but there still figure to be more unsigned prep players than normal.

What those players are now walking into is a great unknown. With schools not required to keep aid at the same level for any player who wants to return, there are certain to be some who are effectively run off to make room for newcomers. But with a whole class eligible to return and fewer juniors getting drafted, the newcomers are likely going to walk into more crowded and competitive situations than they expected. Some will certainly head to junior college, but those schools will be dealing with roster crunches of their own.

A lesser unresolved issue is how the Ivy League will proceed in 2021 and beyond. The league does not allow players who have graduated to compete. If that rule is maintained for the next few years, there will be a glut of grad transfers available from Ivy League schools every summer.

Even with some open questions, Monday’s ruling is a clear victory for the spring student-athletes and could produce a college baseball season for the ages in 2021.

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