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Sports >  Area sports

NCAA eligibility decision praised by local colleges, but could raise financial concerns

UPDATED: Mon., March 30, 2020

From left, Washington State’s Patrick Chun, Eastern Washington’s Lynn Hickey and Gonzaga’s Mike Roth. (The Spokesman-Review)
From left, Washington State’s Patrick Chun, Eastern Washington’s Lynn Hickey and Gonzaga’s Mike Roth. (The Spokesman-Review)

Dozens of student-athletes at Washington State, Gonzaga, Eastern Washington and Idaho got their wishes granted Monday when the NCAA Division I Council voted to allow seniors, and others who competed in spring sports, an extra year of eligibility after their seasons were cut short because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Winter athletes, including those in men’s and women’s basketball who saw their seasons end during conference tournaments – in some cases denying them of a chance to play in the postseason – were not given the additional year of eligibility by the NCAA.

The decision by the NCAA Division I Council, made up of administrators from all 32 Division I athletic conferences, is largely considered a victory for spring sports but could also also prove to be somewhat of a head-scratcher for the men and women coaching those teams, as well as their athletic directors and financial teams.

Seniors competing in spring sports are allowed to return, but the NCAA doesn’t guarantee financial aid if they choose to compete in 2020-21, instead leaving those decisions up to individual schools. Returning athletes will be eligible to receive the same amount of scholarship money they had been getting this spring, or potentially none at all.

“WSU Athletics is in favor of any measure that benefits our student-athletes,” WSU Director of Athletics Pat Chun said. “We are supportive of the NCAA Division I Council decision of giving our spring sport student-athletes the option for another year of athletic eligibility. We will begin to work with our student-athletes and coaches on next steps as we navigate through this ever-changing environment.”

Schools can also turn to the NCAA’s Student Assistance Fund to cover the scholarships of athletes who take advantage of the extra-eligibility waiver in 2020-21.

Freshmen, sophomores and juniors who had seasons shortened by coronavirus also have an opportunity to apply for an additional year of eligibility, extending their five-year NCAA clock to six years. Their financial aid won’t be impacted by the decision made Monday.

Gonzaga’s athletic director, Mike Roth, was happy with the decision, noting that the entire West Coast Conference was in favor of the extra year of eligibility.

“First and foremost, this is the right thing,” he said. “We as (the WCC) supported unanimously this decision to do this. We’re talking about young men and young women who get to play four years of college athletics … but in this case, it was taken away. So the NCAA and the governing body is making the right decision here. It’s my belief. It’s our belief at Gonzaga.”

The next steps will require more thought and organizing on a university level, Roth said.

“So now it’s just a matter of how we are going to implement it moving forward,” he said. “The legislation that was passed, we just have a snapshot of it, so we don’t have all the details yet. (We don’t) know how every instance is going to work and as soon as we get those, then we’ll sit down with our spring sport coaches and then of course with their student-athletes.”

And even though COVID-19 is unprecedented territory, it also will be business as usual for Roth and his staff.

“None of us have ever experienced anything remotely like this in our lifetimes,” he said. “We’re just trying now to do the right thing with our student-athletes in that regard, but it really is no different than all the other things we’re trying to do with our students overall.”

Eastern Washington AD Lynn Hickey also believes the NCAA made the right decision Monday, but for low-revenue NCAA Division I athletic departments like EWU – and several other Big Sky Conference schools in the red – this may present some logistical hurdles.

For those at EWU’s level, it will cost an estimated $400,000 to bring back this year’s senior spring athletes, according to a USA Today report. Spring sports often bring in the least revenue.

Hickey and other administrators are now left to figure out how to raise that money. The athletic department has already been under fire recently from a few budget-conscious faculty members, many of whom believe the school would get more out of its money if the school cut sports entirely.

“The athletes work so hard for their senior year. You work a for a long time to control something, but the kids had no control over how this season ended,” Hickey said. “But (the athletic department) also has to be fiscally responsible in this process.”

Some seniors have already decided they won’t return next year, including Madalyn Ardueser, one of the Big Sky’s top women golfers.

Ardueser, who was named Big Sky Golfer of the Week three times this spring before her season was cut short, said the NCAA was generous to give seniors another year of competition, but she won’t be pursuing it.

“As heartbreaking as it was to have my senior year cut short, my experience at EWU was unforgettable,” said Ardueser, who graduates after spring quarter. “It was a difficult decision to make, but I am ready for the next chapter in my golf career.”

Ardueser believes many other EWU senior athletes won’t return, either, if they have graduated or will soon graduate.

“I think it will be about 50-50 as far as the (senior) student-athletes returning for another year,” she said.

The NCAA Divison I Council is allowing programs to adjust roster sizes as necessary to accommodate returning seniors as well as incoming freshmen. Baseball, the only spring sport that enforces how many players can be on a roster, will have no such restrictions in 2021.

For Division III spring-sport athletes at Whitworth – whose extra season was granted two weeks ago – one option is that they could graduate, then enter the workforce as many planned, and at some point enroll in a graduate program to use their final eligibility, said Tim Demant, Whitworth’s athletics director.

That eligibility would carry with them to other institutions, Demant said.

“Either they come back to Whitworth and start a graduate program, or they (could) go elsewhere and use that eligibility,” Demant said.

Ryan Collingwood, Justin Reed and Dan Thompson contributed to this story.

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