POCATELLO — During an unprecedented time in athletics, the NCAA made a decision Monday to prolong the collegiate careers of spring sports athletes affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
But like many other elements of the world-wide health crisis, the potential fallouts of the decision — and the decision itself — are complicated.
Monday’s vote by the NCAA’s Division I Council granted an extra year of eligibility to student-athletes whose spring seasons were cut short or canceled because of the pandemic. In addition, next year’s scholarship and roster limits have been adjusted to account for returning seniors, and schools have the option to offer returning spring sports seniors some, all, or none of the scholarship money they were previously receiving — easing the undoubtable financial burdens athletic departments across the country will face, while leaving coaches and student-athletes with difficult decisions to make.
“The Council’s decision gives individual schools the flexibility to make decisions at a campus level,” Council chair M. Grace Calhoun, athletics director at Penn, said in an NCAA release. “The Board of Governors encouraged conferences and schools to take action in the best interest of student-athletes and their communities, and now schools have the opportunity to do that.”
The vote was made by the 40-member Division I Council, which is responsible for the day-to-day decision-making for Division I. It consists of athletic directors, senior woman administrators, faculty athletics representatives and student-athletes representing all 32 Division I conferences. Voting is weighted to give the Power Five conferences more say, according to The Associated Press.
Division I student-athletes who participate in spring sports such as baseball, softball, outdoor track and field, tennis and golf, can recover their lost season, if they choose. The Big Sky Conference canceled the remainder of its spring sports seasons on March 18, after the NCAA canceled all spring championship events on March 12.
Winter sports athletes were not granted an extra year, even though many postseason tournaments, including national championship tournaments, were canceled for winter sports such as basketball, wrestling, hockey and indoor track and field.
Not all spring sports athletes will cash in on the extra year of eligibility. With some seniors departing and others returning, plus incoming freshmen and transfers factoring in, enforcing the current scholarship and roster limits likely wasn’t a viable option. So returning spring sports seniors won’t count toward schools’ roster or scholarship limits.
After the 2021 spring season, scholarship and roster limits will apply to athletes who use their extra year of eligibility, according to the AP.
“Many student-athletes are graduating and have a plan to move on, even if granted an extra season,” Idaho State Athletic Director Pauline Thiros said. “Others will take advantage of the opportunity to graduate and transfer to a different experience, and still others will have the opportunity to stay at their institution and begin a graduate degree.”
Thiros said it will largely be left up to ISU’s coaches to determine which seniors they bring back, and how much aid they will get, but that all scholarship decisions must be reviewed and approved. A senior who was was on full scholarship in 2019 may be brought back at 100%, 50%, 10%, 0%, or anywhere in between. Those decisions will likely hinge on the needs of each team, plus the financial limitations ISU may face.
Collegiate athletic departments across the country are impacted two-fold by Monday’s ruling.
Firstly, scholarships account for a large portion of an athletic department’s yearly expenses. With seniors now able to return for another year and scholarship limits extended, universities may need to fund scholarships that weren’t on the budget — a Division I softball program can generally plan to fund the maximum of 12 scholarships each season, for example, but that number may increase next year with returning seniors.
Secondly, Division I universities across the country are impacted by the cancellation of this year’s men’s basketball national championship tournament — March Madness — the NCAA’s top revenue-generating event. That shortfall caused the NCAA to slash its projected distribution — to be dispersed among over 350 member institutions — from $600 million to $225 million.
For Idaho State, that distribution is cut from around $700,000 to around $280,000, Thiros said.
While the NCAA’s distribution makes up a small portion of most athletic departments’ operating budget, that loss, combined with the unexpected increase in scholarship expenses, can impact athletic departments beyond 2020 and 2021.
“The lack of funding for these extra opportunities in any given year, let alone in a year when revenues are hit so badly, means schools across the nation will be making some very difficult decisions about their rosters,” Thiros said.
The NCAA is, however, allowing schools to fund scholarships for returning seniors with their Student Assistance Fund. Money that’s distributed into that fund is generally reserved for assisting student-athletes with any number of extenuating circumstances that require monetary relief.
With the cancellation of most of this year’s spring seasons, it could be posited that ISU may save money by eliminating costs associated with travel. ISU’s only spring sport that generates revenue is track and field.
But Thiros said the savings will be minimal and will not account for lost opportunities.
“The savings is not material to the overall athletics budget for a number of reasons,” Thiros said. “The two expense categories that make up the largest part of any athletic department operating budget are salaries and scholarships, which are not reduced by the current circumstances. Equipment has all been purchased, and the majority of travel was accomplished before the suspension of activity. Any small savings will be dwarfed by the impact this unprecedented event is having on revenues. And, we are also obligated, with all departments at ISU, to pitch in and make sure that together we meet the needs of all students, which comes with significant and unforeseen expense.”
TITLE IX IMPACT?
Gender equity issues could arise as a result of the NCAA’s ruling, because the number of male and female seniors returning to their teams may be disproportionate.
However, Thiros said, that likely won’t be an issue at Idaho State. The school sponsors four women’s spring sports (golf, softball, tennis, track and field) compared to two men’s spring sports (tennis, track and field).
“Any time we increase participation opportunities Title IX is a consideration, and the blanket waiver is no exception,” Thiros said. “However, in our case it will likely increase opportunities for men and women relatively equally, if not a few more opportunities on the women’s side given that our spring sports include a higher number of women in general.”
The NCAA’s press release announcing the decision to extend eligibility does not specify whether institutions will be given Title IX leniency.