As everyone knows by now, the NCAA canceled all winter and spring championships due to the coronavirus outbreak. At the Division I level, no winter championships were completed before everything was canceled, though seasons were completed in some lower-division sports.
A huge issue for the NCAA right now is that it has to determine how to deal with the affected student-athletes. Fortunately for the NCAA, there is only one right answer: Give everyone an extra year of eligibility.
This should be obvious. Most spring athletes competed in a few games, at most. Taking away a year of eligibility for that would be a gross disservice.
Of course, even easy answers have costs. USAToday ran an article on Sunday detailing the financial implications of giving an extra year of scholarships. It’s not simple, for a lot of schools. However, granting an extra year of eligibility doesn’t necessarily mean forcing the schools to give a scholarship. That can be up to schools and students to work out among themselves. Plenty of graduating seniors will be moving on to other places in life and won’t be playing–and that’s fine. The point is that they should keep the opportunity to play if they want.
Here rises the conundrum. Almost no winter sports–none at the D1 level–finished their respective championships. However, the seasons did end for many D1 winter athletes. Basketball conference tournaments were completed–and while we didn’t have selections yet for them most schools knew their seasons were done. Wrestling and fencing had held their NCAA qualifiers already. Swimming and Track finished their conference tournaments. Student-athletes got to finish out their seasons, and it was only a select few that were denied a chance to compete for a championship.
However, those select few are important. College athletes each get a maximum four chances to compete for a championship. Those four opportunities should be treated as sacred, and taking one away would be a travesty. Things like injuries or academic issues happen, but a global pandemic had nothing to do with the athletes. It’s not fair to teams and fans to cancel championships (though it was certainly necessary), but it’s definitely not fair to the athletes themselves, and we have to make that up to them.
Also, the fact that most of the season was played already shouldn’t matter. Every athlete in a winter and spring sport, in theory (excluding schools with postseason bans), starts the season with an equal chance. The fact that some athletes did better during the season than others shouldn’t hurt anyone.
Why not only give an extra year of eligibility to those who qualified for the postseason? Well, that wouldn’t be fair to other schools. If only the best teams got to keep their players for an extra year, then the weaker teams from this year are at a further disadvantage. It just wouldn’t be fair to let only the top athletes compete again. Therefore, since the only fair thing is to give the qualified athletes another chance, we have to give the same chance to everyone.
Again, this means everyone. Not just seniors. Athletes only get four chances at an NCAA Championship, and they deserve all four. It does not matter whether the lost one is the last one, the first one, or somewhere in between. Everyone lost a chance, so everyone should get an extra one.
The next issue to deal with, at the Division I level, is scholarship limits. Every sport has a limit on how many scholarship players each school can have on a roster. We can’t just grant every 2019-2020 winter athlete a redshirt, because that will squeeze down the roster for everyone coming in this coming year.
Instead, what the NCAA has to do is just not count everyone who was on a roster this year. They get an extra year of eligibility, they get a scholarship if the school chooses, and they don’t count towards scholarship totals regardless.
This mean that for up to the next four years, every school could have more players on scholarship than current scholarship limits allow. And that’s fine. It doesn’t squeeze out incoming freshmen and it won’t seriously impact scholarship sports moving forward.
I do have to acknowledge one downside to this plan. Those with many freshmen on rosters would essentially get an above-average free scholarship spot. It would be a (small, but definite) advantage over schools that have more seniors on their rosters currently. To fix this, potentially, the NCAA could consider phasing in scholarship restrictions after next season on those schools who have too many non-counters.
Even without that last point, though, the inequity created by having too many freshmen this season is far outweighed by the basic issue of this lost season.
Everyone deserves all four of their shots at a championship. And this is the only way to give that back.