On Thursday, March 12 the president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, Mark Emmert, and the board of governors made the decision to cancel all remaining winter and spring NCAA championships as well as Division I men’s and women’s basketball tournaments in the wake of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). Just a day later, the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference and the Colonial Athletic Association followed suit, reiterating the suspension of all conference and non-conference athletics. What does this unique circumstance mean regarding the eligibility timeline that Division I students must follow? As detailed by the NCAA, athletes are allowed to play four seasons of competition in five calendar years. The one year leeway they are afforded, which is usually taken in the case of transferring or injury, is commonly known as a red-shirt year. Should athletes whose championships were called off due to the virus be awarded an extra year of contention, even if it means they may surpass their five-year expiration date? On March 30, the Division I Council is scheduled to speak on decisions regarding eligibility exceptions for all student-athletes whose seasons were abruptly ended due to COVID-19. However, the NCAA’s choice will only give schools the autonomy of opting how they will handle the situation internally.
After months of rigorous preparation, unwavering grit and persistent practice, student-athletes should be permitted to choose whether or not they would want to pursue an extra year of collegiate competition to make up for the season lost during this pandemic. Such a pardon should not be strictly limited to athletes who have spent all five years of eligibility. It should undoubtedly be granted to every student-athlete, regardless of class year, who has been disallowed the chance to complete this season due to COVID-19. Time is not subjective, and it is both the NCAA’s and the schools who host DI athletics’ duty to uphold the standard, which in any other case is definite, that athletes are able to complete the full five years that were agreed upon in their contracts. However these athletes’ choice to spend their extra year, whether it be to forfeit the recourse, to use it as a red-shirt year or to have the season be omitted from their entitled time, should ultimately be at their liberty. Academic establishments and the NCAA alike owe their athletes the courtesy to entrust that the decision is not one that they will take lightly. As of right now, the Collegiate Commissioners Association has confirmed that Division II athletes will be able to apply for an extension of eligibility, however this courtesy is only extended to those who would have spent their eligibility after the spring season of 2020. At the current moment, the coordination committee of DI athletics has expressed intentions of providing some sort of relief to their athletes in that regard, however no official conclusions have been made.
Each year in March, the DI men’s and women’s basketball tournaments consume the lives of sports fans. They eagerly create brackets and organize watch parties leading up to these championships. These practices are deeply ingrained in the history of American sports. Some may argue, though, that collegiate basketball players have already completed their regular season, so why should they get an entire extra year? My response to that is simple: athletes work hard during the regular season to make it to the postseason, where they can have a shot at the championship title. Dismissing any opportunity of reward for these athletes would be a blatant sign of disrespect and disregard for their tireless efforts. I am confident that the best remedy to this predicament, if not to allow athletes an extra year of contention, is to resume the season when the United States gains control over this virus. Then, conferences can continue their tournaments to determine the teams that will continue on to the NCAA finals. In my opinion, this is only a viable alternative if the NCAA denies basketball players eligibility relief.
These circumstances are beyond unprecedented, and pose challenges no one in the world, let alone the sports industry, could have ever foreseen. It is up to organizations like the NCAA to maintain their values by adapting to these trying times, and by doing so in a way that prioritizes their athletes’ interests.