Last Friday, the NCAA Board of Governors approved a resolution that will grant an additional year of eligibility to all fall sport athletes regardless of if they play this season or in the spring, or how much they play. The decision essentially freezes their eligibilities for one year, just like the one passed by the NCAA in March for spring athletes whose seasons were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Unlike the spring resolution, which came at a time when much less available information on COVID-19 led to more reactionary approaches by conference leadership across the country, the fall resolution comes at a time when each league is determining a course of action most appropriately aligned with the current situations at its schools.
Along with the goodwill of allotting an extra year to athletes who’ve been dealt a bad hand, there are challenges that come with the NCAA’s flexible approach to extending an additional year of eligibility. Senior student-athletes who opt to stay for an additional year will not count against team scholarship limits, but many athletic departments — even at Power Five schools — may not be able to afford to pay for more of them at a time when budget cuts run rampant all across campus, especially in athletic programs. Schools can choose not to grant financial aid at the same level as previously provided.
In the spring, Wisconsin did not offer its spring sports seniors the opportunity to return in 2021. Just a few days ago, Iowa announced it would cut four sports teams following the 2020-21 academic year.
So while a seventh-year senior TJ Green is possible, it’s not a given.
Six FBS conferences – the ACC, Big 12, SEC, C-USA, AAC and Sun Belt — still plan to play this fall, though it remains to be see if they play, and if so, how much of their schedules they complete. Seniors in those conferences have the option to essentially play five seasons if their school agrees to keep them on scholarship in 2021 as this season is viewed as a pause. Conference and school records could very well be in jeopardy due to players having more opportunities on the field to rack up yards, sacks, tackles and touchdowns.
All things considered, the NCAA had the luxury of time and information to make a reasoned decision regarding the future eligibility of senior student-athletes. They ended up with the same outcome as when they were panicked back in March, and though granting a blanket additional year of eligibility may well be the best decision, the Big Ten and other conferences who have already canceled or postponed their seasons could see themselves at a disadvantage when it comes to roster-building over the next few years.
Beyond next year, though, there are many details to be worked out, especially as it relates to recruiting and scholarship limits. The transfer market could be flooded as saturated rosters force players to look elsewhere for playing time. Could the rules benefit a team like Northwestern more than other schools who have NFL-ready talent not looking to stick around another year? The only sure thing is the effects will be felt for quite a while.