NCAA extends eligibility for spring athletes, but scholarships may not keep up

Less than a month ago, many graduating college athletes had no idea that the coronavirus pandemic would shorten their seasons in such dramatic fashion. For some of them, all is not lost: the NCAA announced this week that it will add an additional season of eligibility for athletes who play spring sports, including baseball, tennis, track, and golf.

But for seniors who play winter sports, their journey is now over, given that they were able to complete their regular seasons. “I think the consensus was: the seniors have had their year, tough luck,” Notre Dame’s head basketball coach Mike Brey told CBS Sports. “… But it’s time to grow up, move on and let the next wave of kids—recruits or young people in your program—come into your program. … Every coach I’ve talked to feels the same way.”

Scholarships likely to be a limiting factor

Finances are a big consideration in adding a year of athletics eligibility. A USA Today analysis found that granting another year of eligibility to seniors in spring sports alone could cost each public institution in the “Power Five”—the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten Conference, Big 12 Conference, Pac-12 Conference, and Southeastern Conference—anywhere between $500,000 and $900,000 in scholarships. Prior to the cancellation of all its winter and spring championships, the NCAA had projected that it would distribute $600 million in tournament revenues for its Division I schools. However, the organization recently announced that it will be able to distribute just $225 million in June, writes Yahoo! Sports.

Even for the schools outside of the Power Five conferences, facilitating an extra year of eligibility would be a tall order. The New York Times notes that “whether an athlete is able to return will largely depend on the decisions by universities, which will determine how much scholarship aid to offer and whether to apply for an individual to receive an N.C.A.A. waiver allowing an additional season.”

In some cases, the Times says, schools with limited scholarship funds may welcome an athlete back on the condition that the student shoulder the cost of attendance. “In our world, those are dollars we don’t have,” Andy Fee, the athletic director at Long Beach State, told the Times, adding that there will be “some tough discussions” when schools aren’t able to provide scholarship aid to student athletes who wish to take advantage of the extended eligibility.

Athletes call for greater focus on housing, food assistance

The NCAA’s announcement this week did not mention efforts to help student-athletes with food and housing during the pandemic. The Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC), a group that serves as a unifying presence for college athletes in the Power Five, had raised the issue in a joint statement in the run-up to the Division I Council’s vote, writing that “while the primary focus of the vote is regarding eligibility, it is critical that the NCAA Division I Council supports collegiate athletes who are currently struggling to pay for food and housing due to the effects of COVID-19.”

Pointing to the NCAA’s Student Assistance Fund (SAF)—intended to help college athletes with unforeseen struggles—the SAAC called on Power Five institutions and the NCAA to increase awareness of and access to the fund. “If the NCAA focuses merely on eligibility relief and does not aid those who are unsafe and unable to pay for food and shelter, then we have already failed our peers as collegiate athlete leaders,” the SAAC wrote. In its communications this week, the NCAA did, however, say that schools would be able to use the SAF to help cover scholarships for students who wish to use their extra eligibility in 2020-21.

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