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The Legal Brief

NCAA Eligibility Over COVID-19

April 2, 2020

By: Derrick L. Maultsby Jr. and

For sports fans, one impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is the loss of the college basketball national tournament, aka “March Madness.” The university shut-downs across the country have resulted in all spring-sports athletes losing their season. Generally, a loss of a season would mean the loss of a year of eligibility to compete, but the National Collegiate Athletic Association (“NCAA”) recently weighed in and acted on these alternatives. 

On March 30, 2020, the NCAA Division I Council voted on eligibility relief for collegiate athletes who had their seasons cut short due to COVID-19. The vote and discussion centered around the Power 5 representatives of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee’s three recommendations for the Council including: (1) immediate support for housing and food; (2) relief for student-athletes in winter sports who qualified for the post season, but could not compete; and (3) scholarship renewals for seniors that  would not count against team limits.  

The vote ultimately gave Division I student athletes who compete in spring sports an additional season of competition and an extension of their period of eligibility.  Per NCAA Bylaws Rule 12.8, “[a] student-athlete shall not engage in more than four seasons of intercollegiate competition in any one sport.”  Rule 12.8.1, also known as the “Five Year Rule,” states,  

A student-athlete shall complete his or her seasons of participation within five calendars from the beginning of the semester or quarter in which the student-athlete first registered for a minimum full-time program of studies in a collegiate institution, with time being spent in the armed services, on official religious missions or with recognized foreign aid services of the US government being excepted.

Per the vote, schools are also able to self-apply waivers to restore one season of competition for student-athletes who competed during the 2020 spring season that was cut short due to this pandemic.  Regarding student-athletes whose eligibility were expected to end after the Spring 2020 season,   financial aid rules have been adjusted to accommodate incoming recruits and student-athletes who wish to return for a final season.  Also, the NCAA Division I Council increased the roster limit in baseball for student-athletes impacted by the pandemic. Baseball is the only spring sport with a roster limitation.

Unfortunately, there will not be any eligibility relief for student-athletes in winter sports as the majority of their seasons were completed. Finally, the relief set the regulatory framework for each university to make its own decisions on how to proceed with providing this relief to the athletes.

Although this relief is the right thing to do and a step in the right direction, it still is a work in progress and several issues remain for universities to figure out. The first issue is that extending relief is an extremely complicated and potentially costly process. USA Today projected that the cost of granting senior student athletes an extra year of eligibility in Power 5 public institutions will range between $500,000 and $900,000.1 These losses are in addition to the more than 60% shortfall in revenue that the NCAA experienced due to the cancellation of March Madness. Since the framework relies on the universities to make their own decisions, universities have to decide whether they have the financial resources to accommodate the additional scholarships. This issue is further complicated when determining whether to give full and/or partial scholarships. This ability will likely depend on the size of the university and the resources within its athletic department.

For those universities or programs that do not have the financial resources to accommodate the additional players, they will have to figure out creative ways to keep players whose eligibility may be lost otherwise. A potential option is through NCAA Bylaw Rule 14.6, “Graduate Student/Post-baccalaureate Participation.” This Rule and its subparts essentially allow a student-athlete to participate in intercollegiate athletics as a graduate student and/or graduate student transfer. This Rule also could allow senior, spring student-athletes, whose universities were not able to offer them a scholarship for the upcoming year to have the ability to play again. In addition, this also helps the particular graduate program that the student-athlete has chosen for various reasons including, but not limited to the simple fact that the attendance contributes to the survival of the program.

Another potential issue that may arise is Title IX. Particularly, the equal aid/relief for men and women’s sports. For those universities with athletic programs that encompass all of the spring sports, this issue may be moot. However, not all universities’ athletic programs have all of the spring sports teams that are granted this relief. Therefore, these institutions will likely have to evaluate its spring sports programs to see if they have creative ways to alleviate these issues. Not granting the extension to these students, although the easiest decision, should be the last resort.

The last issue is the unknown. The harsh reality is that nobody knows how long it will take to recover from this novel virus. For example, if the onset of the coronavirus causes the upcoming FBS football season to be canceled, it could have a horrific effect on a university’s athletic budget. It is vital that universities get a head start and review their marketing contracts, television contracts, and other media contracts to see what types of clauses are contained within them (e.g., force majeure).

Overall, universities must continue to track and follow the developments closely to best plan for how to approach their student athletes’ eligibility now that the vote has occurred. In addition, a complete understanding of the NCAA Bylaws around eligibility could help find solutions for those universities that do not have the financial means to keep its spring student athletes for the following year. We will continue to update our analysis and guidance of this developing situation for university athletic departments.

1  Power 5 Conferences are the major conferences within NCAA Div. I sports. They consist of the ACC, Big 10, Big 12, PAC 12, and SEC.


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