Paul Zeise: NCAA made wrong call on the eligibility of spring-sport seniors

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The NCAA usually comes under fire for making decisions and rulings that seem to be contrary to what is in the best interest of the student-athletes. On Monday, though, the NCAA made a decision that would seem to be in the best interest of student-athletes — but I actually think they got it wrong.

The NCAA ruled that seniors who play spring sports will be granted an extra year of eligibility. That is obviously because they aren’t going to have a season, as spring sports have been canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It seems like a perfectly reasonable and fair ruling and one that is the best way to handle the situation.

I completely disagree, though, and think it was the kind of bad decision that is made under pressure. The NCAA didn’t want to be the bad guy. The NCAA didn’t want to come off as cruel and thoughtless and there is no question that was a part of why they decided what they did. It is the middle of a pandemic and it would have been a really tough thing to announce that all those seniors who lost their final year of eligibility would need to get on with their life’s work.

The problem is the unintended consequences of this decision are going to create more havoc and headaches than any school, coach or student-athlete should have to deal with, considering all that is going on with the world right now.

The NCAA should have said “this is a really awful situation and we feel bad for the seniors who lost their final season of eligibility but they have all had three years of experience as a student-athlete and it is in everyone’s best interest if they all move on now.”

That sounds cruel and heartless, but it isn’t. These are not normal circumstances. This isn’t some situation that happens all the time or even frequently. In fact, this is a situation that none of us have ever been in before.

Everyone is going through hardships at this point, and everyone is making sacrifices. And if anything, this is a wonderful time to teach a bright group of students who are heading into the real world the most important lesson of all: Life isn’t always fair.

Now, you might ask, what difference does it make if these seniors are granted another year? On the surface, it seems like a no-brainer but most things that look too good to be true, usually are.

Let’s start with the fact that this pandemic is going to cause — and already has caused — financial struggles for colleges and universities. The NCAA already announced its distribution to schools would be almost $400 million less than it anticipated because of things like the cancellation of the NCAA tournament.

This is going to force schools to come up with more money for financial aid and scholarships in order to accommodate an entire class getting another season. There are some reserve funds that could be dipped into, but college administrators have already talked about how they will likely be strained by all that is going on.

The NCAA waived scholarship limits for spring sports in order to accommodate all the returning seniors. But there is also a little caveat that schools can reduce or eliminate the financial aid for returning seniors. And that is a terrible decision because it means coaches will now have to make tough choices about whom to give money or not.

Also, coaches just recruited whole classes of freshmen to come in and fill holes left by graduation. Now there is no graduation and we will have rosters overloaded with players.

The sophomores and especially the juniors who waited for their turn behind older players and were ready to step into starting roles next year, now what? Do they get an extra year of eligibility too?

I have three children who played college athletics, one whose NCAA Tournament dreams went up in smoke by the COVID-19 pandemic, so I am very sympathetic to the cause of student-athletes. I know it is an awful situation.

Nothing about what we are going through, though, isn’t awful. There is a lot of pain and suffering already and a lot more to come. We shouldn’t be adding to the financial burdens of athletic departments, causing more stress for coaches and administrators or pushing a problem of overcrowded rosters and players not getting their fair shot a year down the road.

The NCAA is right more than it gets credit for, but in this case, it was wrong.


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