How Coronavirus Changed the (College) Game: Flexibility, Eligibility and Uncertainty

POST DATE: 4.14.20
Ccha  Sports Law

The rapid onset of COVID-19 and the subsequent disruption it has caused has impacted nearly every individual, business and industry across the country. As the news and virus spread, college sports were not immune. Conferences initially restricted fan attendance at games but quickly took more aggressive measures. Teams went into their locker rooms at halftime only to be told to get back on their buses, not the court.

And then the seemingly impossible happened – March Madness was canceled. The rest of winter championships and spring sports followed. Student-athletes packed up and left campus months earlier than expected, without the trophies and medals they had dreamed of only days earlier.

By the end of March, all three divisions decided to grant spring sport student-athletes another season of competition. Winter sports, which had mostly wrapped up, were not extended this flexibility. The unprecedented decision, while almost universally regarded as the right one, adds some uncertainty to these uncertain times, and questions still linger. CCHA Collegiate Sports Consulting NCAA Compliance Specialist Jane McGill explains the impact of the global pandemic for NCAA teams.

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Who is going to pay for this? And how?

A lot of athletic departments, without the distributions they have come to expect as members of the NCAA and participants in the wildly-popular basketball tournament, are crossing their fingers and hoping their checks clear just like the rest of us. Contrary to popular belief, most departments already operate in a very bold shade of red.

Division I addressed this by allowing – but not requiring – schools to provide scholarships of the same amount to those students who choose to stay around. Schools can also reach into the NCAA’s Student Assistance Fund to pay for these extra scholarships. Nonetheless, some schools – like Wisconsin – will decline to apply the blanket waiver to their senior student-athletes and wish them the best in their future endeavors.

Whether or not seniors return, expect budget cuts across the association, along with some extra incentive to develop a functional concept related to name, image and likeness which could help fund student-athletes at no cost to the schools themselves.

What about the rest of the student-athletes?

Winter sport student-athletes who missed out on championships and want another season will have to go the waiver route, and their cases will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.

Meanwhile, incoming and returning student-athletes may see a roster that looks pretty different than what they thought it would be next year. They may want to – or be told to – find a school with a shallower depth chart. Seniors who thought they were done may seek out athletic opportunities as graduate transfers.

The NCAA had already formed a working group that was in the middle of developing a fair and transparent policy on the issue of transfers. That work will continue throughout the spring. The effective date of that policy, which is up in the air at the moment, will have a big impact on who can go where and when.

What’s going on with the student part of the student-athlete experience?

COVID-19 has disrupted the normal academic experience of all students, as classes move to online formats and some grading systems transition to pass/fail. Many students may not have regular access to the basic resources, like reliable internet, they need to succeed in a virtual classroom. All of this upheaval has raised questions about what adjustments may need to be made to the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate program and progress-toward-degree rules.

In early March, the association’s Board of Governors encouraged its members to take action in the best interest of their student-athletes and their communities – if this serves as a guiding principal for the days and months ahead, we can expect to see some flexibility provided in the academic space as well.

This March brought with it a very different kind of madness. The association is having to make decisions at an unprecedented pace, and these decisions have real impacts on real people. For every question answered, more arise. CCHA Collegiate Sports Consulting can help you stay informed as the NCAA navigates these complex issues. Hopefully, by next April, the only question you’ll have is where to watch the Final Four.