I’ll admit that when the Ivy League made its announcement to cancel all spring sports competition, I was mad. I felt sick for every senior sprinter, pitcher, attackman, and tennis player at every school who would miss out on their final season. My senior season in college was full of great moments and memories on and off the field.
It also provided me with something that I didn’t realize at the time – a sense of closure.
I knew the Ivy League’s decision would create a domino effect that would wipe out collegiate athletic events for this spring. But as we say so often these days, it is what it is. It’s tough to dispute caution when dealing with a global virus we know very little about.
In collegiate athletics, conversation has shifted to providing an additional year of eligibility to those spring seniors who were unable to experience their final season. The NCAA announced on Friday (3/13) that eligibility relief will be provided to all student-athletes who participate in spring sports. Here is an excerpt from that announcement.
“Details of eligibility relief will be finalized at a later time,” the NCAA said Friday in a statement. “Additional issues with NCAA rules must be addressed, and appropriate governance bodies will work through those in the coming days and week.”
Before getting further into the “eligibility relief” scenario, it should be noted that the NCAA, like many other entities and organizations right now, are in uncharted waters. This is an unprecedented situation and it’s impossible to check every box and make everyone happy. Unfortunate circumstances are saddled with despair.
With that being understood, the “eligibility relief” is good news on its surface for seniors. It’s great they will have the option to return. But the reality is that the NCAA may just be passing the buck onto each individual institution. If “financial relief” is not part of this plan, college officials, administrators, and coaches may find themselves in some tough predicaments.
For scholarship institutions – Division I, II, and NAIA schools – here is an issue that will emerge. The NCAA can declare seniors eligible for next year, and with that, temporarily raise the scholarship limits for each sport. This would be a necessity because incoming freshman have already been promised the scholarship money made available by the exiting senior class.
But as the system is currently set up, it would fall on the institution to find the additional funding to support those scholarships. If the value of one full scholarship is $40,000, for example, that’s a sizeable bump in funding. Four scholarships from one team brings that total to $160,000. And that’s just one team for an athletic program. Universities may have 5-10 programs (or more) on the men’s and women’s side that compete in the spring.
Expanding the roster size will also have a financial impact on scholarship and non-scholarship schools. Travel expenses, hotel rooms, meal money, equipment, and apparel are costs that will increase with a larger roster. This would require the institution to provide additional funding in the operating budgets for each team.
Are these infusions of cash realistic for colleges big and small? Maybe for some, but not for all. Recent studies show that only about 20 out of 1,000 college sports programs actually turn a profit. Most athletic programs serve as a draw to prospective student-athletes to continue their playing careers and a source of entertainment for the student body, alumni base, and local community. In simplest terms, it’s an investment in enhancing the student experience, marketing the institution to prospective students, and creating fundraising opportunities.
Hopefully the NCAA and its committee members are developing solutions. Here are a few ways the parties involved can make extending eligibility to spring seniors viable.
What can the NCAA do?
The NCAA can cover the bill for each returning scholarship athlete. If an athlete earned $8,500 in scholarship dollars for their spring semester, the NCAA awards $8,500 to the institution if the athlete decides to return. Not every senior will opt to return, and nearly all spring scholarship athletes are on partial scholarships. Remember, football and basketball are the only men’s sports that are fully funded. They are fall and winter sports. For women, volleyball, basketball, gymnastics, and tennis are full scholarship sports. Only tennis is played in the spring.
In addition, the NCAA can provide a stipend to each school that will cover the additional expenses for returning senior athletes. This would include the costs of travel, meal money, apparel, etc. for each senior that decides to return.
Sound like a steep price for the NCAA? Keep in mind that every institution pays annual membership dues to the NCAA and the organization does a tremendous job of making a LOT of money off of those schools and championship tournaments. Their annual revenue is over $1 billion. That’s annual.
What can the apparel and equipment companies do?
Industry giants like Nike, Adidas, and Under Armor can make donations to their member schools to help offset costs for spring, 2021. They’ve made their money from colleges for spring 2020 and have an opportunity share in the solution. If writing a check to each member institution (customer) is unrealistic, they can offer a 50 percent discount for all equipment and apparel for spring, 2021.
What can the colleges and universities do?
Each athletic department has unused funds from their 2020 operating budget. All of them. The costs for buses, flights, meal money, paying officials, event staffing, security, student workers – it’s virtually unused and untouched. Most institutions work on a July 1 to June 30 fiscal budget and have to spend all monies by the end of June.
Rather than having athletic departments go on a spending spree in June, perhaps institutions can legislate a one-time agreement to put a freeze on those funds so it can be carried over to the next fiscal year. That could go a long way in offsetting the cost of expanded rosters.
Schools could also offer a discount to students who decide to stay in school and pursue a graduate degree. Because we’re talking about spring athletes, they would have an entire academic year in front of them to compete in spring, 2021. A grant towards that post-graduate degree could enable the senior athlete to stay another year and continue their education.
It is what it is
I’d rather not conclude this with a downer, but as mentioned, unfortunate circumstances are saddled with despair. The best decision may be that no changes are made. This is a very complicated problem with incoming freshmen arriving late summer. Expanding rosters may sound like a simple solution, but it will be extremely disruptive to each team, its practice plans, player roles, and perhaps most vulnerable, team chemistry.
From the powerhouse Division I college programs to the small-sized Division III programs, there is an enormous financial, operational, and philosophical gap that makes it difficult to develop a plan that is suitable to all. If the NCAA presents a resolution that extends the eligibility of senior spring athletes, that’s a great option for those want to pursue it. It’s a great option, but not a true solution.
The hope is that everyone involved puts their best foot forward in generating ideas, utilizing resources, and offering solutions. That is the only way some of these seniors will ever find closure.