Opinion: Granting college spring athletes extra eligibility seems fair but details prove daunting

Dan Wolken

If doing the “right” thing were the only consideration, Monday’s scheduled NCAA vote to address eligibility for spring sport athletes whose seasons were cut short by the coronavirus pandemic would be a no-questions-asked slam dunk. 

Everyone in college athletics understands the inherent unfairness of a senior softball player’s career ending after a quarter of a season or the tennis player who barely began conference play losing an entire year of eligibility. In a perfect world, everyone would automatically get back the year they lost. 

But, as we know, the world isn’t perfect right now. Far from it. And that’s why opinions about how to handle the eligibility question have been all over the map heading into Monday’s meeting of the NCAA Division I council. 

Because of the coronavirus there will be no celebrating in Omaha, Nebraska this year as Vanderbilt did after winning the 2019 College World Series.

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“Those students have been through a lot, so trying to provide them an opportunity to be as whole as they can with regard to their competition opportunity is something we are generally supportive of,” Sun Belt commissioner Keith Gill said late last week. “Financially, we’re all trying to figure out what this all looks like. There certainly will be some hard decisions we’ll have to make.”

How hard?

Just consider the situation as described by an FBS athletics director at a program outside the Power Five, who spoke to USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity because of the potential difficulty for coaches in speculating about scholarship losses.

At this particular school, which already relies on millions of dollars in university subsidies to operate its athletic department, the loss of revenue due to COVID-19 cancellations is projected to be around $1.5 million — and that doesn’t include any potential fallout from an altered football season.

Meanwhile, if the NCAA grants blanket eligibility for seniors in spring sports to come back in 2020-21, this athletics director projects 85 percent of them will choose to return, largely because coming back to school and pursuing a graduate degree might be a better option than trying to enter an uncertain job market this summer. If that projection holds, the price tag would be around $600,000 in scholarships and other support. 

Where’s that revenue going to come from? Certainly not from an increase in state or university subsidies. If anything, athletics directors now are under the impression that funding for athletics could be reduced as schools deal with enrollment drops and massive financial hits on huge moneymakers like on-campus food service, which are all now suspended.

And while it might be impolite to say out loud, the vast majority of these spring semester athletes compete in sports that bring in no revenue. 

While the Ohio States and Floridas of the world can take that kind of hit, most of Division I is not going to be in a great position to withstand upward of $500,000 in new costs -- especially given the revenue shortfall from the NCAA, which is only distributing $225 million this year to schools out of the $600 million it would normally distribute due to the cancellation of the men’s basketball tournament. 

Adding that kind of expense without a way to pay for it could be crushing for dozens of schools that don’t generate huge football revenue.

That’s why many administrators across the country were furious on March 13 when the NCAA announced, via the Division I Council Coordination Committee, that it would “be appropriate to grant relief for the use of a season of competition for student-athletes who have participated in spring sports.”

While everyone who works in college sports supports that idea in theory, the announcement was widely viewed as typical NCAA dysfunction and lack of communication with its members: Announce something big and complicated that will have a significant impact on school’s bottom line but provide no details or guidance on how it will be implemented.

Now, it seems, those details are going to come into focus — and yet, throughout the last week, no true consensus had formed on how to best handle the issue. 

Do you issue a blanket waiver for all seniors to come back, which would require at least a temporary suspension of scholarship limits? Do you give every spring sport athlete an extra year of eligibility? Or do you allow schools freedom to make individual decisions on whether to offer those scholarships to seniors, including the possibility of offering reduced scholarships for those who are already on partial aid and letting the athlete determine whether they want to come back under those circumstances. 

As Texas athletics director Chris Del Conte said in a Friday radio interview with “The Horn” in Austin, schools are “all over the map” on which option they’d like.

Conferences without FBS football, which represent 25 of the 40 members of the Division I council, are almost certainly going to oppose a blanket waiver. But given their power and visibility in driving the discussion around college athletics, the opinion of the Power Five schools carries a ton of weight. 

At a time when the NCAA is keenly aware of public perception, making a decision that is perceived as being against the best interests of college athletes is not something anyone wants to do. But balancing those interests against the very real financial strain schools are going to feel in the coming months isn’t going to be easy.