In one of the most trying times in recent memory, NCAA athletes who participate in spring sports just got the gift they’d been hoping for: a blanket eligibility waiver.
That means that if you play a spring sport at an NCAA institution, your 2019-20 academic year will not count against you as one of the four allotted years a collegiate athlete typically gets. Whether you’re a freshman, sophomore, junior or senior, it doesn’t matter; this year will not count against you.
The same relief was not extended to winter sports like basketball. But it was never really expected to be in the first place, and so looking at this as realistically as possible, this was the best the NCAA could have possibly done.
The decision is a big deal for a wide variety of reasons. For one thing, the blanket eligibility waiver was considered too difficult to make happen by some due to scholarship numbers. The thought was that the eligibility waiver would only be applied to seniors who did not get their chance to finish their careers with a run at a championship; meanwhile, freshmen, sophomores and juniors would be out of luck.
Or, to translate this from a generic standpoint to a Florida-specific standpoint: Gator freshmen Rylee Trlicek (softball) and Hunter Barco (baseball) will still have four years of eligibility left, while seniors Kendyl Lindaman (softball) and Austin Langworthy (baseball) will get one more, in 2021. In theory, the class makeup of every single 2020 spring sport has been frozen- freshmen will remain freshmen, sophomores will remain sophomores, juniors will remain juniors and seniors will remain seniors- for a year.
But while the the 2020 season won’t count as a year of eligibility for anybody, the deal potentially gets even sweeter for schools. The NCAA’s decision goes on to state:
Members also adjusted financial aid rules to allow teams to carry more members on scholarship to account for incoming recruits and student-athletes who had been in their last year of eligibility who decide to stay. In a nod to the financial uncertainty faced by higher education, the Council vote also provided schools with the flexibility to give students the opportunity to return for 2020-21 without requiring that athletics aid be provided at the same level awarded for 2019-20. This flexibility applies only to student-athletes who would have exhausted eligibility in 2019-20.
What that means is that the current scholarship limits for various spring sports have been relaxed in an unparalleled way. The exact decisions on which athletes and sports to carry this out with will be decided by a case by case basis by each school. But at least in theory, every Division I spring sports team in the NCAA will now be providing financial aid to five years’ worth of student athletes.
Of course, that’s not a perfect solution. Some schools are much better equipped to deal with this than others. But if the goal is righting the it’s-nobody’s-fault wrong that this COVID-19 pandemic has caused in college sports, a blanket eligibility waiver was really the only way to achieve that goal. Merely extending an extra year of eligibility to seniors wouldn’t have been fair to freshmen sensations like Trlicek and Barco, who would have been robbed of one of four chances they would have ever gotten to claim their respective sports’ ultimate prizes.
It’s also worth noting that some of the financial issues caused by placing five classes worth of kids on scholarship at once will be mitigated naturally. Many college baseball players leave after their junior years, and in fact I’d still more or less expect two of Florida’s three starting baseball pitchers (both juniors) to leave for the pros anyway. Some other spring athletes may complete their degrees, not want to go pro in their sports and decide it’s time to get started on life after college.
Now, again: yes, there are going to be sub-optimal situations that arise from this. Of course there are. The coronavirus that’s created this mess we’re dealing with now is a sub-optimal situation to begin with. This blanket eligibility waiver is highly unlikely to never encounter a hitch here or there, between schools not having the money needed to apply it to everybody and making some difficult decisions regarding who to apply it to, to simply not being able to fit five recruiting classes worth of baseball players into one dugout. The perfect fix for this crisis, as is relates to college athletics and pretty much everything else, just doesn’t exist.
But the NCAA sent a cogent message to sports fans everywhere today. Though it has a long, irritating history of doing the cruelest, dumbest and flat-out worst possible thing in a given scenario, it faced possibly the most critical decision in its history as college athletics’ governing body today- and it made the right one.
Kudos to you, NCAA.