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Leistikow: If NCAA does right thing on eligibility, Spencer Lee's quest for 4 NCAA titles can resume

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

The door is ajar for Division I winter-sports athletes to get a so-called “free” year of eligibility. Now, the NCAA needs to do the right thing and blast it open.

Blanket waivers were given to spring-sports athletes who lost their seasons when the NCAA canceled winter and spring championships March 12. Blanket waivers have been granted to fall-sports athletes, including in football, who are competing in a shell of the originally planned season during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Winter-sports athletes are next to learn their fate.

And they deserve to hear good news that might be coming. Over the weekend, Stadium’s Jeff Goodman reported that the NCAA’s Basketball Oversight Committees were recommending to the Division I Council to vote on whether winter athletes should get an extra year regardless of whether they play, and that it should pass based on the spring and fall precedents. (The NCAA confirmed that the D-I Council will meet Oct. 13-14.)

No group of athletes would get a more needed boost from a winter waiver than wrestlers, which would be fitting — considering their championships were wiped out just six days ahead of the sport’s first such competition inside an NFL dome (Minneapolis' U.S. Bank Stadium).

We know this in wrestling-obsessed Iowa: The NCAA Championships are the thing in wrestling. Really, nothing else matters much in a calendar year besides those six sessions over three days, amid jam-packed, passionate venues and an ESPN national-TV audience.

We also know that this coming wrestling season will likely be a shell of what it would normally be. Big Ten Conference coaches are talking about maybe a 70% schedule, but we’ll be lucky to see 50%. In a close-quarters sport such as wrestling, where there’s no way to eliminate the passing of body fluids, reliable day-of-competition testing and protocols will be a must. Pulling off the NCAA Championships (scheduled for March 18-20 in St. Louis) is certainly the goal. There's no doubt driven coaches and wrestlers will do whatever they can to prepare for that possibility.

But it’s almost certain that even if the NCAA Wrestling Championships do occur, they won’t be the same. Fans? Maybe some will be allowed. Maybe.

It definitely won't be the usual spectacle.

And is that really the right way to send out the likes of Iowa’s Spencer Lee, on track to be one of the finest college wrestlers of all time?

Spencer Lee, the 2020 Hodge Trophy winner as college's most outstanding wrestler, could be a week away from having a revived shot at four NCAA titles.

Lee is the poster child for this discussion. The fourth-year Hawkeye has done everything right in the course of his Iowa career, from his recovery from an ACL tear to carrying himself with great class and sportsmanship. Lee won NCAA titles at 125 pounds as a freshman and sophomore, then was the nation’s most dominant wrestler as a junior but wasn’t allowed to compete for a third NCAA title. That year counted against Lee, as it did for everyone else (including departing seniors such as Penn State’s Mark Hall and Iowa’s Pat Lugo, who were dealt tough-to-stomach conclusions to their careers).

At minimum next week, the NCAA should grant a waiver to winter athletes (basketball included) who have not yet spent a redshirt season, such as Lee or Hawkeye 133-pounder Austin DeSanto. They deserve to spend their redshirt year as they wish.

All that said, a blanket waiver is the right thing to do. Such a waiver wouldn’t mean that athletes are guaranteed an extra year of scholarship dollars from their current university. The waivers can complicate scholarship maximums, sure, but the precedent has been set in other sports to not count seniors who return against the limits.

Even if an athlete must become a walk-on to complete an extra year of eligibility, he or she should have that option. Winter athletes don’t deserve to get the short end of the stick for a second straight year.

If the D-I Council does the right thing, Lee would have a shot to win a third NCAA title this March. His opportunity to become a coveted and rare four-timer in 2022 would be deservedly resuscitated. (I'm told he'd be more than willing to put off a professional career if given the chance to become the NCAA’s fifth four-time wrestling champion.)

The D-I Council has the voting power next week to make the 2022 NCAA Wrestling Championships in Detroit’s Little Caesars Arena an incredible event, one that could truly grow the sport.

After what will essentially have been three years since a national tournament as we've come to know it, you would have perhaps the most star-studded NCAA field in collegiate wrestling history. You might see reigning Olympic champions in the field. It’ll be so big … heck, might be worth checking to see if nearby Ford Field is available.

Because it’d be an event worthy of 60,000 fans inside a football stadium. And a fitting stage for a magnificent college career such as Lee's to end.

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.