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Why extending NCAA eligibility is no simple matter

The NCAA said early this month it wanted to give athletes an extra season of eligibility because they couldn’t play this spring, but getting there was complicated

Utah celebrates its win over Washington at Smith’s Ballpark in Salt Lake City for the Pac-12 baseball championship Sunday, May 29, 2016.
Utah celebrates its win over Washington at Smith’s Ballpark in Salt Lake City for the Pac-12 baseball championship Sunday, May 29, 2016.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The NCAA made it official on Monday. College athletes in the spring sports will get a mulligan — they will be granted another year of eligibility to make up for the season that was lost to the pandemic.

Apparently, the draconian NCAA has a heart after all (a very tiny one).

The extra eligibility will apply to all classes — not just seniors — in the spring sports of baseball, softball, golf, tennis, outdoor track, rowing, men’s volleyball, beach volleyball, women’s water polo and lacrosse.

There had been some discussion of extending the eligibility of winter sport athletes as well — they completed the regular season, not the postseason — but that didn’t happen.

To accommodate the influx of recruits — freshmen and transfers — and returning seniors, the NCAA will expand rosters and scholarship limits.

On March 13, immediately after the cancellation of the NCAA basketball tournament, the NCAA Council Coordination Committee announced that spring athletes would be allowed to make up for losing a season of play. It seemed like a perfectly fair and reasonable thing to do, which makes you wonder how the NCAA thought of it.

But not so fast. Issues were raised by college athletic officials around the country. The committee meant well but the announcement was premature. No one had discussed it with member schools — which will bear most of the costs — nor provided details about how it would work, and as it turned out it came with many problems. It was left to the NCAA Council to approve it Monday and it addressed at least some of the problems, while others can’t be answered yet.

For one thing, how are schools going to award scholarships to an extra class of athletes after losing their biggest moneymaker — the NCAA Tournament — to the coronavirus pandemic? The tournament, which provides annual revenues of $1.1 billion, pays many of the bills for college athletic departments. USA Today reported a few days ago that because of the lost revenue, the NCAA is cutting payouts to schools by $375 million — from $600 million to $225 million.

Things will be even worse if the college football season is canceled or truncated.

The return of this year’s senior class next year will upset the natural flow of classes through the system. Instead of the usual turnover of athletes moving on after completing their eligibility, thus freeing up scholarships for incoming freshmen, now schools must fund both.

It’s a domino effect from there — freshmen, sophomores, juniors, as well as seniors, would now be granted five years of eligibility instead of four, which will impact athletic departments for four years. The increased size of the rosters means more expenses.

Last week, USA Today reported that giving seniors an extra year of eligibility will cost the Power Five schools between $500,000 and $900,000.

The financial crunch will be especially hard on the middle class of college sports — the one-half of the 130 Division I football schools that aren’t members of a Power Five conference.

All of this presumes that collegiate sports will return to normal, but that seems unlikely to happen soon. Many fans and sponsors will have lost disposable income because of the pandemic’s impact on the economy, which means fewer ticket sales and sponsor revenue.

Those are problems that will have to be dealt with in the future. Meanwhile, on Monday the NCAA addressed some of the issues by adjusting financial aid rules to allow teams to carry more athletes on scholarship. This is necessary to accommodate both incoming recruits and seniors who decide to return for the extra year of competition.

The NCAA also addressed the potential financial shortfall by allowing schools to reduce the scholarship amounts of returning seniors from their value during the 2019-20 school year.

It’s an added burden for college athletics that face the possibility of a new sports world when competition resumes. Given the state of the economy, the loss of the basketball tournament and the added burden of returning seniors in spring sports, it’s fair to wonder how long schools can continue the status quo.

It was unfair that athletes lost their senior seasons this spring after months of training, but there’s a lot of unfairness going around these days, such as people losing their jobs. On Monday, the NCAA at least tried to make things fair. It remains to be seen how it will really impact athletic departments.