Leistikow: Why baseball is messiest piece of Monday's key NCAA eligibility vote

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central
Rick Heller hopes that there is absolute clarity in the NCAA Division I Council decision on eligibility Monday.

Monday figures to be a life-altering day for thousands of Division I athletes across the country. Will the NCAA give those whose winter or spring seasons were cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic an extra year of collegiate eligibility?

The 40-person Division I Council will (virtually) convene Monday and is expected to vote on that topic. A March 13 statement from the D1 Council Coordination Committee recommended that “eligibility relief is appropriate for all Division I student-athletes who participated in spring sports.”

It seems obvious, doesn’t it? That these athletes, especially those in spring sports that were just getting started, shouldn’t have their eligibility denied like this?

But it’s not that simple.

A recent USA TODAY Sports report estimated that granting eligibility to seniors-only on spring sports teams would cost between $500,000 and $900,000 per Power Five institution. Tack on giving eligibility relief to all spring athletes (and possibly winter athletes, in sports like basketball and wrestling) and it gets more costly and complicated for years to come.

Iowa baseball's Rick Heller is among the many coaches who have more questions than answers when it comes to the future eligibility of his senior players.

On top of that, the NCAA on Thursday declared that total distributions to Division I schools would be slashed from $600 million to $225 million — a move that'll cost Power Five programs millions and take an even bigger percentage bite from low- or mid-major athletic departments — because of the cancellation of the men’s basketball tournament.

Across the country, many athletes wait for Monday and wonder. So do the coaches.

While it’s considered a long shot for winter-sports athletes, there is optimism for those in spring sports. At Iowa, athletes in track and field (men’s and women’s), tennis (men’s and women’s), golf (men’s and women’s), rowing, softball and baseball have NCAA-endorsed hope about their fates.

And there’s no more complicated sport in the conversation than baseball.

“By far,” Hawkeyes baseball coach Rick Heller says. “Not even close.”

► More: Iowa baseball has more questions than answers

In a telephone interview with the Register, Heller outlined the stakes and domino effect of whatever the D1 Council decides. The complexity of baseball underscores why the D1 Council has a heavy burden to try to make the best-possible decision with the best-possible parameters.

In baseball, most players are on partial scholarships. Programs are limited to 11.7 total scholarships, with a maximum of 27 players on scholarship and a maximum roster size of 35. But by NCAA rule, anyone on scholarship must receive at least 25%.

If eligibility relief is granted, Heller estimates that Iowa would have at least 15 additional players that weren’t expected to be part of the 2021 roster.

“If they say everybody gets an extra year but we’re going to hold you to the current numbers,” Heller says, “it’s impossible for us to manage that. It can’t be done.

“They’re going to have to give us more roster spots and more scholarship money to make it happen.”

But even if the D1 Council provides for those parameters, not every athletic department can afford it. And then baseball could really become the wild West, even moreso than it is already.

And that's in part because of another confusing cloud hanging over the issue.

The Major League Baseball draft.

There has been talk that the MLB will cancel its 2020 draft, which is usually in June, or shorten it to 10 rounds, considering team scouts cannot be on the road.

“Let’s use Vanderbilt as an example,” Heller says. “They have guys who have signed letters of intent that are probably going to get drafted in the first two or three rounds, and some of those guys are going to sign, right? That’s part of their world. But if they don’t have a draft, those guys are going to come to school and add to the numbers and the scholarships.”

Big Ten rules allow for teams to over-sign by two scholarships (to 13.7) to account for possible draft losses, but they must be back to 11.7 by late summer.

The American Baseball Coaches Association (of which Heller is a part of) has been actively sending data and situations to the D1 Council (of which Iowa athletics director Gary Barta is a part of). The biggest fear among coaches is that they will be forced to make cuts and/or take away scholarship money from either returning or incoming athletes.

Heller’s stance on the baseball issue?

“If you’re going to do this, then do it right. Don’t make us be the cruel guys that have to cut a bunch of kids. Don’t leave us hanging,” Heller said. “Come out with a statement that’s going to work for everybody, and not just a certain amount of teams.

“Don’t leave it up to the institution to make the decision when some institutions won’t honor it or don’t have the money to do it. Or, other institutions are going to take advantage of it and gain another advantage in a sport where that happens all the time anyway.”

It’s complicated. And the messiness might just be getting started Monday.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.