About a month has passed since the NCAA announced the cancellation of winter and spring sports championships. In the immediate days after that March 12 announcement, college conferences across the country followed by canceling the remainder of their spring sports seasons because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Among the concerns from fans, coaches and players was what would happen to the seniors who lost their final year as a student-athlete.
Over the ensuing weeks, NCAA councils in Division I, II and III have addressed that issue by granting institutions the authority to self-apply season-of-competition waivers for all spring sport student-athletes who competed and were eligible during the 2019-20 academic year.
In layman’s terms, an extra year of athletic eligibility is now an option for spring sports student-athletes.
Problem solved, right? Well, not exactly, especially for those student-athletes at Divisions II and III.
First off, the majority of the student-athletes at the D-II level and all of those at the D-III level are paying out of pocket for college tuition. In turn, this year’s seniors have to weigh the benefits of playing out a fifth year of athletic eligibility next season versus the cost of tuition.
What does that mean for those at Millersville University, Elizabethtown College, Franklin & Marshall College and Lancaster Bible College?
“The hard part of F&M is not having a graduate program,” Franklin & Marshall men’s lacrosse coach Todd Cavallaro said. “And cost is another thing. To ask an individual to come back and repeat another year is a tough thing to do. My seniors are most likely not going to do that.”
Eight spring sport coaches at Millersville, F&M and E-town were interviewed for this story. Of those, four said their seniors will mostly likely not return next season, three said some of their seniors are considering the fifth-year option, and another said she has not yet had that conversation with her players.
And for the freshmen, sophomores and juniors playing spring sports who do opt to take the extra year of athletic eligibility, they’ll still be required by the NCAA to take at least 12 credits each semester through their next-to-last semester in order to demonstrate that they’re working toward a degree.
The fifth-year option is a bit more doable at Elizabethtown College because the school offers an occupational therapy program that requires five years of academic coursework.
Elizabethtown College softball coach Kathy Staib, who is also the school's compliance officer, said she has three juniors, two sophomores and three freshmen studying occupational therapy.
“So they’ll be in pretty good position (for a fifth year),” she said.
College coaches also must take into account the incoming high school recruits from the Class of 2020.
Mix that together, and then keep in mind Title IX compliance, which requires the percentage of male and female student-athletes to be proportionate to the percentage reflected in that school’s student body.
“We’re at 56 to 44 female to male ratio in our student body,” Millersville athletic director Miles Gallagher said. “Our athletic department needs to reflect that ratio to within 1%.”
So if the Millersville baseball team, for instance, has four seniors who opt to return for a fifth year, coach Jon Shehan said, “what happens if women’s track team doesn’t have four ladies who come back and we do?”
It’s a question to which Millersville compliance officer Larry Earnesty is still trying to find an answer. And it’s not one he can get from the NCAA.
“Title IX is a government mandate,” Earnesty said. “That’s not an NCAA thing. Title IX is a federal law.”
There are a lot of moving pieces to a puzzle that feels like it keeps changing.
“We’re getting updates from the NCAA on a daily basis,” Earnesty said. “And as they comb through these issues, everything they tell us we have a couple of questions off of their responses.”