CHAMPAIGN — Eligibility relief is coming for NCAA student-athletes who just saw their spring sports seasons face an abrupt end this week in response the public health threat of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman supports the idea. He did so late Friday morning before the NCAA moved to recommend eligibility relief to the affected student-athletes, and his stance hadn’t changed Saturday morning when he made an in-studio appearance on WDWS 1400-AM’s ‘Illini Pella Saturday SportsTalk.’
“I think it’s easy in theory to support that idea — particularly for the spring sport student-athletes,” Whitman said. “I spent some time (Saturday) morning communicating with some different members of our staff about what some of the ripple effects of that would be. It’s not as clear-cut as people might originally think.”
Multiple issues have to be addressed for said eligibility relief to come to fruition.
One is as simple as making sure senior student-athletes, who were set to graduate this spring or perhaps already graduated, would be enrolled again as a full-time student to be able to participate in athletics in the next academic year.
Financial aid limitations also have to be addressed. Every Division I sport has a cap on the number of scholarships it can provide. Some sports are head count sports — one full scholarship per athlete. Others split their total scholarships among a roster that numbers greater than the financial aid they can provide. Most sports have also already allocated their financial aid for next year based on the idea roster spots and scholarship dollars would come open through graduation.
There are also Title IX considerations. Logistical considerations, too, like uniforms and lockers and how much expanded travel parties might cost in terms of flights and hotel rooms.
“All that can be worked through, but it needs to be worked through,” Whitman said. “We’re starting to think through what all that would mean.”
Whitman said he fully expected there would be amendments to NCAA rules and waivers in place to address most of those issues. Some issues, though, don’t have a straightforward answer and would be more difficult to address.
“If an incoming baseball player thought that the stud center fielder in front of them was going to graduate and move on and that spot was going to be there for them to try and compete for, and all of a sudden that stud center fielder is coming back, that changes that internal dynamic,” Whitman said. “That one is probably not something that we can deal with legislatively.”
The initial discussions surrounding eligibility relief centered around senior student-athletes who lost their final opportunity to compete. That’s simply not the case.
“It would be hard, I think, to distinguish between the seniors and everybody else,” Whitman said. “If you’re saying the seniors were ‘robbed’ of an opportunity by virtue of what’s happened, you could make that same argument for every person who is on those teams. Are you returning a year of eligibility to everybody who was on the team this year?
“Someone who was a sophomore on the tennis team this year, do they come back as a sophomore again next year? What are the long-term implications of that?”
The NCAA’s recommendation of eligibility relief also, at this time, applied to just student-athletes who compete in spring sports. Per the NCAA, those sports include baseball, beach volleyball, men’s and women’s golf, men’s and women’s lacrosse, rowing, softball, men’s and women’s tennis, men’s and women’s track and field, men’s volleyball and women’s water polo.
That leaves student-athletes in winter sports, including men’s and women’s basketball, wrestling, men’s and women’s hockey among others, currently facing a lost season at least in terms of competing for a championship.
“How far out do we extend that opportunity?” Whitman said. “So many questions to be answered and a lot of conversations that are ongoing at every level of college athletics. We’ll be an active participant in those conversations, and we’ll see where we ultimately land.”