Leistikow: NCAA needs to do right thing — vote 'yes' on eligibility after mass coronavirus cancellations

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

There’s a seismic vote planned for Monday that could change the near future of college sports. The NCAA’s Division I Council is set to determine whether athletes whose seasons were cut short from concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic should be granted an extra year of collegiate eligibility.

The decision, especially for spring sports athletes whose seasons were just getting under way when the NCAA determined to cancel all winter and spring championships, would on the surface seem to be a no-brainer. And the 40 or so administrators who are convening Monday know that, too.

But in this case, the right decision is going to be the most difficult decision. Voting yes to an extra year of eligibility would mean signing off on the possibility of millions of extra dollars in scholarship costs to universities already in more precarious cash-flow positions by the cancellation of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament … with the possibility of a washed-out or shortened football season further crippling budgets.

The NCAA still has time to do what is right for athletes, whether scholarship money is involved or not.

The easiest, cleanest decision for the Council on Monday is to vote “no” — to both winter and spring athletes who saw their seasons (or careers) end. Wash your hands of this, say it was an act of God and this was an unfortunate, extraordinary circumstance. You can go to bed knowing that future competitive balance won't be thrown out of whack and knowing that America has far greater losses to worry about right now during the coronavirus pandemic.

But the right decision Monday is to vote "yes" to eligibility relief.

Vote "yes" to spring sports athletes. Vote "yes" to winter sports athletes whose postseasons were cut short.

It was extraordinary and unprecedented for the NCAA to cancel the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, the wrestling championships, hockey's Frozen Four, the baseball and softball College World Series and every other spring sport. Likewise, administrators should search for extraordinary solutions in the wake of this pandemic to do what is right for what aligns with their core values.

Coaches at all levels encourage their athletes to fight to the finish. Never give up. When the game or match is on the line of when unforeseen circumstances like injuries occur, always search for a path to success.

Will administrators hold themselves to the same standard? Probably not. They are too often led by the bottom line, not by what their own core values address.

From the NCAA’s website: The missive is about “prioritizing academics, well-being and fairness so college athletes can succeed on the field, in the classroom and for life.”

We can agree that these athletes are and should be continuing their academic pursuits during the COVID-19 situation. But what is fair to these college athletes, both on the field and in life? Taking away, for many of them, their opportunity at life-changing glory?

Here in Iowa, it feels appropriate to take a closer look at wrestling — a sport that reflects our blue-collar spirit.

When the NCAA canceled its winter and spring sports March 12, wrestling was the furthest along down the track — less than seven days away from the NCAA Championships U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. The 330 qualifying wrestlers (at 10 weight classes) had been seeded; the brackets were drawn up. Each of those wrestlers was five wins away from a life-changing NCAA title. It was the right decision to cancel given what's unfolded, for sure, but is it also the right thing to eliminate 25% of each athlete’s postseason? In an individual sport like wrestling, the NCAA Championships are everything. It’s what everything is measured by.

The case of Iowa's Spencer Lee is a terrific example of the "what's right" discussion. The 125-pound phenom was heavily favored to win his third straight NCAA title as a junior. Next year, he would have been positioned to become the first four-time NCAA champ in the storied history of Iowa wrestling, which has won 23 NCAA team championships. Only four men in the history of the NCAA have achieved “four-timer” status; Lee was positioned to become the fifth — lifetime marketability and prestige.

Now? Through no fault of Lee’s, his chance at history is gone.

And let’s take it a step further. Many of Lee’s elite collegiate counterparts used the 2019-20 season as an Olympic redshirt season. Guys like Daton Fix of Oklahoma State and Yianni Diakomihalis or Cornell took the year off to focus on the (now-postponed) 2020 Games. Those wrestlers will get their year back.

But Lee? Because he chose to compete with his Hawkeye teammates in pursuit of an NCAA team championship — the epitome of what college athletics are all about — would have his year of eligibility gone with a “no” vote Monday. How would that be fair? With a “no” vote, Lee’s historical record will be diminished for life, and the decision-makers will just move on.

Again: Extraordinary circumstances require extraordinary solutions. We are experiencing that now in America, as most of us operate in isolation from our homes. Why not search for the right thing to do when it comes to something as non-controversial as athlete eligibility?

Is every athlete who had his/her season cut entitled to another full year of scholarship? Absolutely not. But vote “yes” to the eligibility question.

In the case of wrestling, grant the 330 affected wrestlers one semester (spring of 2021) eligibility. They can't compete until January of 2021; same goes for basketball players. But for each and every one of them that chooses to come back, that’s potentially one life-changing semester.

If that means an athlete must decide whether to walk on for one semester or walk away, let that decision be made by him or her … not by a committee of administrators who making six- and seven-figure salaries. It’s the hard thing to do, but the right thing to do.

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.