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Peak Perspective: The Eligibility Dilemma

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Talking about recent NCAA rulings.

When half of the teams in Division I FBS decided they were not playing fall sports this year, it led to a plethora of questions. The NCAA ruled on a number of the biggest questions stemming from how everything played out. While the rulings favored the student-athletes’ best interest, how all NCAA rulings should be made, they were far from perfect. Many have apparent drawbacks, especially concerning eligibility, finances, and roster sizes going forward. Today’s post will dive into some of those matters.

Recap

Coaches can’t make players opt-out or not opt-out due to Covid-19.

  • “Schools are prohibited from requiring student-athletes to waive legal rights regarding COVID-19 as a condition of athletics participation.”

Coaches can’t pull a scholarship from a player who opt-out.

  • “Schools are prohibited from canceling or reducing athletics scholarships if a college athlete in any sport opts not to participate due to COVID-19.”

Classes come first.

  • “Student-athletes who do not enroll full time during the 2020 fall term have flexibility in the progress-toward-degree requirements that must be met for eligibility in future terms.”

Seniors won’t lose their final year of eligibility and can return next season if they want to.

  • “The financial aid of fall sport senior student-athletes who take advantage of the additional year of eligibility and extended clock will not count against team limits in 2021-22.”

Schools are required to:

  • “Review current insurance coverage for all student-athletes who are competing this fall.”
  • “Inform student-athletes about the risk classification of their sport as outlined in the Resocialization of Collegiate Sport document.”
  • “Inform student-athletes how the mandates in the Resocialization of Collegiate Sport document are being met at their campus.”

The Upside

Seniors don’t get cheated.

Seniors stand to lose the most from the fall season being canceled, as this would have been their last year to play. It would have been terrible if the outcome was to send them on their way. While it is unknown how many will want to return, it’s good the decision lies with them. The really good ones will like go pro (ex. Warren Jackson), and the ones buried on the depth chart may decide to keep playing with their teammates or move on to the next stage of their lives. It probably benefits the good but not great players the most; the solid starters or all-conference performers who have a ceiling as an UDFA at the next level. It would make sense most end up returning.

Everyone preserves eligibility.

This is the right move and all benefit. While it will clog rosters next season, that’s not a burden players should have to bear. Basically, everyone gets an extra redshirt year to get stronger, faster, better, and in some cases, even healthier. Coaches and players alike won’t have to fear an athlete’s time in the program flying by. In fact, it’s more likely in a few years, everyone will be saying, “this guy is still around?” Again, the elite players can declare or never have to use their extra year, but the players who will benefit from a full college sports career will have the opportunity to do so.

The Downside

The class of 2022 will suffer.

As mentioned above, rosters will be clogged. For decades, college sports have run like an assembly line, with a new class coming in as an old one leaves and everyone in between moving up a year. Not with this class. The senior group will double, and although that is the right move, something has to give. What will likely end up giving is the incoming class in the 2022 recruiting cycle.

If the team can’t go through the usual attrition via graduation, they have to find other means. Since programs cannot get rid of the players they have, then the next logical solution is not to bring as many players in. Of course, this will vary from school to school, depending on senior class sizes, but teams would expect to take smaller 2022 classes. It would not be surprising for class sizes to be smaller anywhere from seven to ten players on average.

Do JUCOs see a record influx of players? Do high school athletes try to walk on at their local college? Do some talented athletes not get a shot at the next level? Time will tell. What is certain is the logjam has to work itself out somehow, and unfortunately, this seems like the easiest way to do it.

Smaller schools may not have the money to cover additional scholarships.

This is the category where things start to get tricky. Having a logjam of 100 players on a scholarship means not everyone will play, but coaches are used to that already and likely won’t be as concerned as the rest of us. That’s one issue, but it’s get compounded when trying to imagine how schools will cover finances.

Now the cost of a scholarship isn’t as much as schools would have you believe, but there are some expenses. The school isn’t really losing money by having extra players enrolled, but they will have to pay for additional plane tickets or hotel rooms or food at the end of the day.

Will every school be able to afford those costs? Especially the teams already losing revenue due to not playing football this year. Will teams short on cash flow, especially the FCS or D2, be able to cover everything for additional players? If a school like Wisconsin wasn’t going to have their spring sport student-athletes who decided to return continue to be on scholarship, will schools like New Mexico or Bowling Green stand a chance?

Rosters will be bloated, and there are only so many snaps to go around.

This is related to the two points above and is the natural outcome of retaining seniors who are no longer outgoing while also bringing in incoming freshmen. Again, this isn’t impacting coaches or programs. If anything, they will talk at length about their newfound depth at certain positions.

The issue instead, will be more players than usual competing for playing time. Not only do returning super seniors (seniors coming back for another year) throw a wrench into recruiting, but it also creates an issue with the natural flow of the depth chart. A sophomore who was biding his time behind a senior starter primed to be a two-year starter himself will now have to be second-string for an additional season. Other players who couldn’t crack the two-deep in the first year or two in the program may now face another year of not seeing the field. Expect to see (or not see, as the case may be) many players who would’ve started now be regulated to backup duty while players who were poised to step into backup roles continue to see time on the scout team. And if players are not content with being in lesser roles, they may explore the alternative option.

Of course, if players were transferring at a high rate with rosters of 85, imagine how full the transfer portal will be with over 100 scholarship players? This is a case where some players benefitting will cause others to be negatively impacted.

The bottom line is the old expression, “robbing Peter to pay Paul” is alive and well. The NCAA should not be criticized here, because they made the right decisions, even if the decisions are full of imperfections and problematic outcomes. The important thing is that student-athletes are benefitting, and the problem is that other student-athletes are not. The issue going forward is it will more or less be up to the coaches to figure out how to balance those two realities and how it plays out is sure to be content for future posts.