It has now been over two weeks since the NCAA canceled the remainder of the 2019-20 athletic season due to the public health threat of the novel coronavirus-caused, COVID-19 pandemic. Even though that amount of time has passed, there remain several questions about how college sports are going to continue operate going forward.
This is the first article in a continuing Pittsburgh Sports Now series on those questions and the difficult answers for them, as the world of college athletics moves through unprecedented territory during the ongoing pandemic.
One of the first responses to the NCAA cancelling the remainder of the 2019-20 athletics season was a public plea for the governing body of college sports to give an extra year of eligibility to spring sports athletes impacted by the cancellation of the remainder of the season.
On March 13, just days after the cancellation announcement, the NCAA Division I council coordination committee announced that “relief is appropriate for all Division I student-athletes who participated in spring sports.”
They also said that the details of eligibility relief will be finalized at a later time. That time will be on Monday, when the committee will vote on how exactly an extra year of eligibility will work for those spring sports athletes.
While it’s one thing to say that those impacted players deserve an extra season to compete, the actual details of how that might work are fairly difficult to process.
First of all, there are roster and scholarship limit restrictions that will have to be considered. If schools bring in their scheduled allotment of freshman and keep now-eligible-again seniors, they’ll be over both the roster and scholarship limit very quickly.
What will relief for those limits look like? Will Pitt baseball be allowed to exceed its roster and scholarship limit by five, which is the number of seniors on the 2020 Panthers roster? That seems equitable, but what about when Pitt plays, say Miami, which had just three seniors? Is it right that the Panthers should be able to participate with two extra players or two extra scholarships?
If schools are allowed to exceed the roster and scholarship limit by more than the number of returning players they have, will that set off an explosion of transfers as top schools with suddenly available rosters and scholarships scoop up available players?
There are more concerns beyond competitive balance. Who pays for the additional scholarships and roster spots? More players will require more resources, training space, locker room space, dormitory space and more bodies for team travel.
If teams are allowed to exceed the scholarship limit but not the roster limit to help allay those concerns, how will those scholarships be doled out? Unlike football and basketball, no spring sports are head-count sports, so most players are playing on some percentage of a scholarship instead of a full ride.
Will schools be required to maintain the level of scholarship funding for all returning athletes, or will some see their stipends reduced?
Additional scholarships themselves also require additional investment from the athletic departments to the schools, particularly in the cases of returning seniors that might have to enroll in graduate school to remain a student. Out-of-state undergraduate tuition at Pitt is in the neighborhood of $32,000. Graduate tuition is even more.
Pitt, with five seniors, could probably foot the bill if they all wanted to return. But major conference baseball teams have a deflated numbers of seniors because most drafted players leave for professional baseball after their junior seasons.
Imagine a smaller college team making that financial investment. Youngstown State had eight seniors when they visited Pitt this season. Robert Morris has eight men’s lacrosse seniors, nine women’s lacrosse seniors, four softball seniors, three rowing seniors and five track and field seniors.
That would be a significant burden for a non-revenue sports, which outside of a few major baseball programs, is what basically every spring sport is.
Furthermore, those schools’ budget are going to be stretched thinner than every by this pandemic. The NCAA paid out just $225 million to conferences out of an expected $600 million. That’s over a $1 million deficit per school.
For conferences with television deals that were projecting filling airtime this spring with a plethora of spring sports and championships, there will likely be additional revenue shortfalls.
Even more impact is the looming question of whether or not football games will be able to be played this fall in front of fans, a massive moneymaker for almost every institution that could send athletics budgets in total disarray if refunds must be issued instead.
There are far more questions than answers when it comes to what is right and what is wrong. Yes, clearly, some kind of relief is appropriate for those student-athletes that had their seasons taken away. But at the same time, without the answers to many of those questions, it’s going to be very difficult for the NCAA to come up with a solution that is equitable for all parties.