Last week the NCAA’s Board of Directors approved a plan that will give all Division I fall sport student-athletes an additional year of eligibility.
Thus, whether they play in the fall, spring or not at all, those student-athletes for football, men’s soccer, women’s soccer, cross country, volleyball and field hockey will not use a year of eligibility in 2020-21, no matter when they play or how many games they play.
It’s very similar to the rule that was passed for spring student-athletes when their seasons were shut down at the midway point in mid-March because of the spread of COVID-19.
Initially the NCAA’s Division I Council had considered allowing any fall student-athletes who played in 50% or less of their competitions this season a chance to earn an additional year of eligibility. Eventually, though, that council, of which WVU Director of Athletics Shane Lyons is a member, decided to expand the offering to all fall student-athletes, no matter how many games they play.
“We started the discussion last week, and we were at the 50% mark,” explained Lyons in a recent appearance on MetroNews. “I tossed the idea out to the council that we needed to think higher than 50%, think about going for the entire season. We needed to do that because of the uncertainties for the seasons, and that’s not just football but also volleyball and the soccers [men’s and women’s]. The student-athletes are asking this question.”
Not every member of the Division I Council thought granting all fall sports student-athletes an additional year of eligibility was the right move.
“There was a lot of behind-the-scenes work in trying to build a consensus,” noted Lyons. “There were a lot of phone calls to the other council members and the representatives from the other conferences. You had those people calling others once you started building support. Ultimately we got most of the people to agree. Some voted against it, but probably three-fourths of the people did support it.”
With 20 seniors, 17 of whom are on scholarship, on the 2020 Mountaineer football team, the financial impact of allowing an additional year of eligibility figures to be large. There are another 12 seniors on WVU’s 2020-21 men’s soccer, women’s soccer, cross country and volleyball teams.
Lyons estimates that the total to carry over all those scholarships will be in the neighborhood of $1 million for West Virginia’s athletic department next year.
Still, he believes, “It’s the right move.
“We know there are issues on the back end, but I’d rather deal with those issues later on with the understanding that right now we serve the body of those student-athletes and their life and what it was going to mean for their eligibility if they played,” Lyons said.
“This is what we needed to do for the student-athletes. We’ll figure out the financial aspect later.”
The Division I Council forwarded its proposal to the NCAA’s Board of Directors for final approval, which the Board granted last Friday. Besides allowing an additional year of eligibility, the new mandate also expands the total scholarship count for each sport for one year.
“Let’s say we have 20 individuals who were in their last year of eligibility in football, and they all return next year,” noted Lyons. “Those 20 are on top of your 85 [the normal scholarship maximum for FBS programs], so now you’re at 105. After next year, for the 2021-22 season, you’re back at 85 scholarships.”
While the total scholarship expansion will increase the available numbers in 2021-22, it could make things tight in 2022-23. At that point the 2020 seniors will have departed, but there will be an additional class stacked within each team, as the younger classes also each get an additional year of eligibility.
Lyons doesn’t believe that scholarship number will be a big issue, though.
“What people often don’t understand is that most programs aren’t at 85 on a year-in, year-out basis,” he said. “Because of attrition and not having spots, most programs are in the upper 70s or low 80s in terms of total scholarships.
“There are going to have to be some decisions made by the coaches and conversations with student-athletes who may want to transfer. That is going to happen,” he added. “But it’s not unrealistic to get back to those numbers pretty quickly.
“We’re facing that now in the spring sports. In our situation, there has been normal attrition from student-athletes who decided to move on with their life and not return.
“There will be some bumps in the road, but it will work itself out pretty quickly.”
Besides eligibility, the Board of Directors also approved two other Division I Council proposals. The first stipulates that schools can’t require student-athletes to waive their legal rights in terms of COVID-19 in order to participate in their sport. Also, colleges cannot cancel or reduce the scholarships of student-athletes who opt out due to COVID concerns.