Uncertainty continues as Iowa navigates spring-sport eligibility relief options

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Among the countless athletic department unknowns caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the issue with the greatest disparity is how universities are handling the NCAA’s eligibly-relief ruling for spring athletes.

All schools are bracing for budget tightening in the next fiscal year. But how to approach the unprecedented eligibility scenario — which blends financial and moral aspects together — has solutions that range from a full elimination to a complete return.

Iowa lies somewhere in the middle.

Speaking publicly for the first time since the NCAA voted March 30 to give eligibility relief to all spring athletes — while leaving money decisions up to each university — Hawkeyes athletics director Gary Barta explained how Iowa is navigating a tough situation.

Iowa athletic director Gary Barta speaks during a press conference on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

Iowa isn’t mirroring Big Ten Conference neighbor Wisconsin, which announced Thursday that all seniors in spring sports won’t return in 2021. But the Hawkeye tone isn’t as optimistic as other places — New Orleans and Louisiana Tech for example — where decisions have been made to honor all, or at least some, of the scholarships for spring seniors.

“Everyone knew when this passed that the finances of next year are certainly going to look much different than they do this year,” Barta said in Thursday’s teleconference. “So that’s why we sat down with our (spring) coaches and said, ‘You have to figure out a way to do this and make it work with your budget and you’re not able to take away scholarships from underclassmen.’ Those scholarships are intact.

“If you want to talk with your seniors about reducing (their scholarship), we can have that conversation. Otherwise, you’ll have to raise it — and many of them have good fundraising foundation accounts. Or you have to have it within your limit if you’re under your financial aid limit for scholarships. Anything else will have to be cut out of operations.”

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Barta estimated that “25 to 35” spring seniors are considering returning in 2021, resulting in a bill of roughly $500,000. Iowa has 45 seniors among its nine spring sports: men’s and women’s tennis, men’s and women’s golf, men’s and women’s track and field, baseball, softball and rowing. Leading the way are men’s track and field (12) and baseball (10).

It’s no surprise there’s little clarity less than two weeks after the NCAA vote. Spring coaches at Iowa and beyond are trying to piece an impossible puzzle together, leading to tough decisions and hard conversations.

“The anxiety of the unknown and the stress of going through this and not being able to have your season, those are all difficult things to handle (for our spring coaches),” Barta said, “and everybody’s in it together when we have these meetings. They’re all in trying to support each other, and they understand that this isn’t normal. They can’t just think of it the way they used to be. They have to think of it differently. They’re having unique conversations with every student athlete.”

Those conversations may extend well into the coming months, depending on which route Iowa’s spring coaches opt for when it comes to presenting a passable plan.

The student athletes have difficult decisions as well. Some are ready to start their post-playing lives. Others are out-of-state athletes whose partial scholarships go a long way in affording their journeys.

Barta outlined a likely scenario some of these athletes are facing.

“Think of a student athlete,” Barta said, “they were going to finish their eligibility. They’re going to have their degree and get their virtual graduation ceremony. And they’re on a partial scholarship. How many of them are really going to come back to compete in their sport? They’ve already got their degree. They may or may not already have a professional opportunity. And maybe they have the money to cover their extra tuition. Maybe they start a graduate degree or a second major. Or maybe they just want to play their sport so bad, they’ll pay for two semesters to still come back and play their sport.

“How many seniors are going to say, ‘I have my degree, which is a big part of what this is all about, maybe it’s time to move on to the next part of my journey.’ Those are the tough conversations coaches and student athletes are having.”         

Wisconsin and AD Barry Alvarez had it with their spring competitors, citing an "unprecedented uncertainty in college athletics" as the reason for their firm decision. Iowa hasn't made its move, but the longer uncertainty lingers, the tougher it becomes to accommodate the majority.

“It was a very emotionally honorable thing to want to say by the NCAA, 'Let’s allow them to come back,' and I fully understand,” Barta said, “… but dynamically when you’re putting a team together, it has some potential challenges."

Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at msouthard@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.