Leistikow: Making sense of NCAA's spring eligibility vote and the uncertainty still ahead

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

To grasp how important Monday night’s NCAA Division I Council approval to extend the eligibility for spring sports athletes was, let’s first flash back to the afternoon of March 12.

While the high-profile cancellations of the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments — the end of March Madness — was front and center, a glance to a roadside pit stop in Indiana illustrated the heartache felt among lower-profile athletes.

Elise van Heuvelen Treadwell, a senior women’s tennis player at Iowa, and her teammates and coaches were on their way to road matches at Indiana and Purdue once the news hit that their seasons were canceled amid the concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic. A three-time all-Big Ten player from England, van Heuvelen Treadwell assumed that was how her collegiate career would end.

College baseball figured to be one of the most complicated aspects of the NCAA Division Council's eligibility relief vote, and it was.

“March 12 is going to be one of those days I’m not going to forget for the rest of my life,” she recalled Monday night. “We were driving two Suburbans, and we just stopped off the highway and stood in this random field in Indiana. And we were just heartbroken.”

But on Monday night, van Heuvelen Treadwell and thousands of athletes around the country officially received a lifeline of opportunity, hopefully, to come back to school and compete in college again.

“Today’s one of those good days,” she added, “where we can start looking forward and thinking about those options.”

For van Heuvelen Treadwell, there’s confidence that scholarship money will be there. But even a star player like her isn't entirely sure. Others are feeling less confident in the wake of Monday’s decision.

Although seniors can come back to school for an additional year without counting against scholarship limits, the key asterisk in blanket eligibility relief was that individual institutions will determine the level of scholarship money available for them. For example, an athlete that had a 50% scholarship might have to be reduced to 25% or zero. 

There’s no telling what budgets will look like six or 12 months from now, with growing uncertainty about the ability to execute a season of football — the financial engine that drives all college sports.

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Iowa men’s tennis player Jason Kerst has a terrific grasp on this. He is the president of the Iowa Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (ISAAC). The Ann Arbor, Michigan, native is also a fourth-year senior for the Hawkeyes whose college career was hanging in the balance with Monday’s vote.

Kerst described the “yes” vote as a bottom block in a game of Jenga. If it had been pulled, we wouldn’t even be quibbling about funding levels for returning fifth-year seniors.

“This issue was the umbrella that everything else had to fall under,” Kerst said. “If this fell through, then there were no other pieces.”

Kerst has been uplifting with his responses to fellow student-athletes but also vague, because what’s next for each spring athlete remains unknown.

Unfortunately for winter athletes whose all-important postseasons were cut short, the Jenga tower crashed Monday night.

No eligibility relief was granted.

Iowa junior Spencer Lee will forever remember March 30 as the day he won the Hodge Trophy, college wrestling’s version of the Heisman, while also having his hope of becoming a four-time NCAA champion eliminated through no fault of his own.

Lee could have taken an Olympic redshirt year like many elite wrestlers did this past season, but he chose to compete in an effort to lead his teammates to an NCAA title. Instead, he lost his chance at a third NCAA individual crown at 125 pounds. He’s had a tough time getting over that.

“It’s hard to swallow,” he said, “when you tried to do the right thing and you get punished for it. The guys that had taken the Olympic redshirt … those guys just kind of got a free year. What can you do about it?”

Particularly in wrestling, with extremely tight scholarship limits (9.9 for rosters of 30-plus), many families of affected athletes would have loved the opportunity to pay for an extra year of school if it meant their son could have eligibility relief. But that option doesn’t exist for them like it now does for spring athletes, who understandably are still facing upcoming uncertainty.

That’s especially true in baseball, which received special mention in the NCAA’s decision. Roster previously limited to 35 players will now be allowed to accommodate any returning seniors, who have no idea what kind of financing will be available for them.

“It’d be nice to know if I come back what I’d be coming back to,” said Hawkeyes starting pitcher Grant Judkins, a fourth-year senior who isn’t sure what he will do next. “But the universities have to kind of figure that out. It’ll take some time.”

What complicates baseball is the likely shortened Major League Baseball draft (to 5-10 rounds, down from the usual 40). Third-year prospects who would have been ordinarily been drafted and probably signed might be more inclined to return to school. That scenario also could create better rosters but budget headaches for coaches such as Iowa’s Rick Heller, who had planned on draft attrition.

Zeb Adreon, a senior outfielder from Pleasantville, is excited about the prospect of returning to finish business that the 2020 Hawkeyes started. Because they don’t have a lot of high-level draft prospects, their 2021 roster could be loaded.

“We’re probably going to have most of our team back from guys that weren’t seniors, and then whatever seniors are able to come back,” Adreon said. “Most people are pretty excited about what we could have next year.”

In track and field, the Iowa women's team will now return NCAA champion discus thrower Laulauga Tausaga in 2021, with her last year of eligibility rescued Monday.

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It was a largely positive day for athletes overall. Perhaps the best way to recap the NCAA vote: A good day for many athletes, but with spring strings attached.

And Judkins, perhaps, echoed what a lot of holed-up athletes are generally feeling.

“Most of us are just looking forward to playing again,” Judkins said, “whenever that is and wherever that is.”

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.