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Granting Spring Athletes NCAA eligibility is not as simple as giving back years.

It is an incredibly difficult time in the world of sports. COVID-19 has decimated the athletics landscape worldwide and has mostly brought society to a pause if not an abrupt halt. Sports, after all,  are not worth the spread of a pandemic, and it is undeniable that things look and feel bleak.

Nevertheless, one of the positives in the wake of bad news coming out of the March 13th weekend -AKA The Weekend Sports Stopped- was that while the spring season of NCAA athletics had shut down, those senior athletes who will otherwise be leaving collegiate competition will be granted relief for next year, so as to remain eligible for ‘another’ senior season.

The NCAA Division I Council Committee has recommended that eligibility relief be provided to all student-athletes who participate in spring sports. Saying more specifically that: “Details of eligibility relief will be finalized at a later time,” and “Additional issues with NCAA rules must be addressed, and appropriate governance bodies will work through those in the coming days and weeks.”

Most spring sports had yet to really dive into their seasons in any meaningful way, so the relief comes as warranted, whereas winter sports athletes had already played most of their season, so it is hard to make the same comparison for the validity of replaying a season. That being said, committee chair Dr. Grace Calhoun has indicated that there are at least talks of some winter athletes getting some consideration. 

There are obvious complications with extending eligibility for senior seasons, but it can be imagined that workarounds can or will be created on an emergency basis. This is the NCAA we are talking about; they have shown a willingness and ability to create (or destroy) anything they choose to, in their world.

As of now, the NCAA has moved to vote on such relief on March 30th 2020, so there may be more clarity as to the process and specifics after said vote, but until then there are some serious considerations and questions of the NCAA that must be made. 

The NCAA designates spring sports as baseball, beach volleyball, men’s and women’s golf, men’s and women’s lacrosse, rowing, softball, men’s and women’s tennis, men’s and women’s track and field, men’s volleyball and women’s water polo. Saint Louis University participates in baseball, softball, men’s and women’s Tennis, and Track and Field. The spring calendar for SLU is light, but they have considerable athletes to be considered in this eligibility shakeup.

The primary issue facing these student-athletes is the same that the program would hypothetically face; the total number of scholarships available to them.

The NCAA puts limits on how many full scholarships are available to each program by sport. Sports like Football, Basketball, Women’s Volleyball, Women’s Tennis, and Gymnastics are what is call a “Head-Count” sport. This means that they are allotted a certain number of scholarships, and only that many athletes are allowed to have scholarships.

For example, Men’s basketball is allotted 13 scholarships a year, only 13 athletes may occupy them. Baseball, on the other hand, stretches its 11.7 scholarships to fit its 34-man rosters. Some members have more “scholarship” than others, but no one has a complete scholarship.

All but one of SLU’s spring sports will be impacted by the scholarship crunch that is about to occur, and that one headcount sport, women’s tennis, will face an issue of its own.

The eligibility relief will provide plenty of opportunities for players to complete their college dream but will come at significant personal cost to these student-athletes.

The seniors who opt to return will do so by spending thousands of dollars in order to return to their schools and be eligible to play by participating in classwork. Whether that be by continuing or completing their undergraduate education or the more likely scenario of beginning a post-grad program at their school. These seniors will be adding to their student loan debts to participate in academic programs that they may not want or need in the pursuit of earning the senior season that so unfairly was taken away from them.

The senior eligibility relief will impact Eighteen student-athletes at Saint Louis University. With average undergraduate tuition costing 43,000 dollars a year, and full-time graduate tuition from 27,000 dollars sans room and board. These student-athletes take on considerable financial risk, coming within the worst economic environment since 2008, in order to pursue their dream.

Saint Louis University is an extreme economic example, with one of the most expensive educations in the state of Missouri and the upper tier of expensive in the country. And yes, these student-athletes would not be paying the full price listed above, but their partial scholarships surely will not make the new additional loans any easier.

That is all assuming the NCAA lightens up the restrictions on available scholarships.

The caps on scholarships in place host a severe sticking point to the development of this relief. Up until this point, Women’s tennis and Women’s Gymnastics participants had not had anything to worry about as they hold full scholarships. However, with only eight scholarships for tennis and 12 for gymnastics, things start to get tricky.

For example, SLU Women’s tennis currently has four graduating seniors in its class. They were hypothetically leaving four open spots for freshmen and transfers into the program. If all four seniors decide to return, and there are limited financial barriers to not returning, there would then” be no available opportunities for incoming student-athletes. Some of whom may have already committed to the program.

This “all-of-a-sudden” lack of scholarship impacts headcount sports just as much as it does flexible sports. SLU Baseball would have to figure out how to balance retaining five seniors and honoring those partial scholarships while bringing on new players. Softball would balance 2, Track and Field 10, Men’s tennis “luckily” only balances the one, but the women’s side has those mentioned above 4 to deal with.

Unless something changes, as in relief comes to seniors and their programs in more ways than just eligibility, one could very well see a SLU campus without spring athlete first-year students. It is unlikely, as the financial burden will likely scare off some returners, but the possibility is there, and it is above 0% likely.

There are still many questions as to what the NCAA plans in terms of spring relief. What counts as a senior? What about 5th-year students? Will they be allowed to return as 24-year-old college student-athletes? It is unclear how the NCAA plans to rectify this situation, but it is clear they plan to do something.

For those who are fortunate enough to be able to return for a 5th or maybe even 6th year, they are being put in a position to have a subsidized graduate education. Some may be able to walk away with master’s degrees or certificates that they otherwise may never have expected to attain. However, that education will come at a high cost. When fans of college sports talk about student-athletes being paid “in an education,” these are the students they forget about.

The NCAA made a progressive and correct move by supporting eligibility relief to the seniors lost in the COVID-19 cancellations, but more needs to be done. Programs need to be able to accommodate these student-athletes while continuing to support new students and grow the program, and student-athletes cannot be punished financially for wanting to play out their senior year.  

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Billikens, Feature

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