The NCAA did the right thing on Monday afternoon, but there is a catch.
The college sports governing body’s Division I Council on Monday approved a blanket waiver for spring-sport athletes to get an extra year of eligibility. This decision stems from the NCAA canceling March Madness, as well as the remainder of winter championships and all spring championships in the face of COVID-19 pandemic fears escalating.
Scholarship limits will go up in 2020-21, but the catch is that schools will have the option to offer the same, lesser or no financial aid to those getting an extra year of eligibility. While revenue sports like basketball and football are considered “head-count” sports, meaning full-scholarship sports, most spring sports such as baseball and softball are “equivalency” sports, which means the available scholarships for said sports are not full and can be divided up as a coach sees fit. In turn, most spring-sport athletes are on partial scholarships.
As examples, a Division I baseball team has a roster limit of 35, but only 27 can be on scholarship with 11.7 scholarships to use. A Division I softball roster has approximately 25 players, but only 12 scholarships to use. Men’s lacrosse, which the University of Utah began sponsoring in 2019, has a limit of 44 players, but only 12.6 scholarships.
The NCAA’s Student Assistance Fund will be an option to help pay for scholarships for students who take advantage of the additional eligibility in 2020-21. According to the NCAA, the Student Assistant Fund handed out $18 million in 2019.
On March 13, a day after the NCAA Tournament and NCAA Championships were cancelled, the Division I Council released a statement that, ‘Council leadership agreed that eligibility relief is appropriate for all Division I student-athletes who participated in spring sports.’
That statement represented the NCAA getting out in front of the situation at a time when there were far more questions than answers. In the wake of the NCAA Tournament cancellation, the organization also sought to produce good optics by giving the year of eligibility back.
At the time, several key factors were not fully under consideration, things like scholarship limits, cost of the extra scholarships to schools, roster sizes and academics among them. According to a March 22 report by USA TODAY, the cost for Power Five public schools could be between $500,000 to $900,000.
Those concerns were apparently not enough to shoot the proposal down at voting time. Multiple sources told The Salt Lake Tribune in the days leading up to Monday’s vote that the University of Utah and the Pac-12 as a whole were behind giving spring-sport athletes the year of eligibility back.
Giving winter-sport athletes the year of eligibility was also on the table, but the Division I Council declined to do so, citing that all or at least most of their respective seasons were complete.