NCAA quietly updates criteria for receiving medical redshirt

NCAA quietly updates criteria for receiving medical redshirt

College basketball programs, such as Illinois' in the case of freshman Rich Semrau, apply for a medical hardship waiver when a player suffers injury or illness and seeks an additional season of eligibility.

The reasoning is simple: They want to retrieve that lost season and tack it on as a fifth year.

Semrau, a 6-foot-9 forward from Grafton, Ohio, played five games last season before undergoing season-ending chest surgery in early December. Chris Peacock, the UI's assistant athletic director for compliance, and basketball coach Bruce Weber said the athletic department likely will apply for a medical hardship in the coming months.

"It's easier to do it sooner, when you have all of the documentation, rather than later," Peacock said.

Semrau meets all the criteria for a recipient of a medical hardship, commonly referred to as a medical redshirt. He played in less than 20 percent of the team's games in the first half of the season, and Weber expects Semrau will gain a fifth year of eligibility.

So an amendment to the medical hardship criteria, passed without fanfare by the NCAA in April, will not affect Semrau. But according to compliance officers and coaches, the amended rule could have a significant impact on other college basketball players who had a season cut short by injury.

Here's what the amendment says: A player can compete in 30 percent of a team's games – instead of 20 percent – in the first half of the season and still be eligible for a medical hardship waiver. For example, if Illinois plays a 28-game schedule and a player is injured in the eighth game, he still can meet the criteria for a medical hardship waiver. Under the old rule, he would have to be injured in or before the fifth game.

"At the end of the day, it was a value judgment that 30 percent of the season better represented a good opportunity to have meaningful participation in that season," said Chad Hawley, the Big Ten's assistant commissioner for compliance. "If the idea is for student-athletes to have four full seasons of competition while they're in college, the thought was that 30 (percent) gets a student-athlete closer to fulfilling the idea of full participation."

The NCAA gets a lot of grief. This time, the governing body deserves a hug.

"It has gotten a lot better for the student-athlete," Peacock said.

Said Weber: "You only get to have a college career one time in your life, so I think the NCAA is trying to do the best thing for the student. For a student-athlete who gets legitimately hurt, it's a good thing."

Here's where the NCAA's amendment gets even more juicy: The new criteria is retroactive to athletes who enrolled on or after Aug. 1, 2003. Say a player suffered a knee injury in the seventh game of the 2004-05 season. Almost three years later, he can apply for a fifth year of eligibility. Illinois, which has largely avoided serious injuries in recent years, is not believed to have any such case, Weber said.

"Before last year I don't think we ever had a case of being hurt very often," Weber said.

A school in the Horizon League proposed the amendment to the conference office. Stephanie Jarvis, the assistant commissioner in the Horizon League who took the proposal to the NCAA, said she already has been contacted by Horizon League institutions who are interested in pursuing a retroactive medical hardship.

"It just depends on what that kid wants to do," Jarvis said. "Some kids may say, 'Hey, I'm ready to graduate.' Others might pursue an additional year of eligibility."

The Big Ten office, which approves or denies hardship waivers from member schools, processed 65 medical hardship waivers during 2005-06, according to league records. That's on the high end, Hawley said, and the number will spike in the coming months. Not only will the league handle waivers that fit under the old criteria but waivers that fit under the new "30 percent" criteria.

"There's no doubt some schools will take advantage of it," Hawley said.

– Paul Klee