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Coronavirus in Oklahoma: NCAA eligibility decision is right, but road ahead is rough

The NCAA Division I Council approved on Monday an extra year of eligibility for spring-sport athletes. [AP Photo/Michael Conroy, File]
The NCAA Division I Council approved on Monday an extra year of eligibility for spring-sport athletes. [AP Photo/Michael Conroy, File]

The NCAA Division I Council was set to vote Monday afternoon on whether spring-sport athletes who had their seasons cut short by coronavirus cancellations should get an additional year of eligibility.

An athletic director told me the vote was set for 2 or 3 p.m.

Then came a tweet from college basketball writer Jeff Goodman that the vote would happen at 4 p.m.

Then came a tweet from Ralph Russo, the lead football writer for the Associated Press, that the vote was behind schedule but was expected to be finished around 5 p.m.

Trouble was, it was already after 5.

Word finally began trickling out that the council had indeed approved an extra year of eligibility for spring-sport athletes. As first reported by The Athletic, the vote was largely in favor of the blanket waiver.

But the details indicate how tricky the issue is.

“The Council’s decision gives individual schools the flexibility to make decisions at a campus level,” NCAA council chair and Penn athletic director M. Grace Calhoun said in a statement.

Here’s what she means by flexibility — schools won't be required to give the same level of financial aid to seniors who decide to return for an extra year. Schools may choose to match the aid those seniors were receiving this year, but they may also give less.

A lot less.

Even zero.

My heart breaks for athletes who must decide what to do if their scholarship gets slashed. They’ve already had the rug pulled out from under them this spring. Now, they face more uncertainty. Do they come back for another year if they have to foot a bigger bill?

Even though the athletes are at the forefront of my mind, my heart hurts, too, for the decision makers.

I rarely expend much worry for the men and women in suits who run major-college athletics. They have too much financial power and too little tangible compassion for athletes. But on this issue, those decision makers deserve some pity.

Granting extra eligibility to spring-sport athletes was like deciding to go to the Rocky Mountains and drive from Estes Park to Grand Lake on Trail Ridge Road during the winter.

In the dark.

Without headlights.

The administrators on the council made decisions with an untold number of financial unknowns. Prime among them is whether we’ll have football this fall. Billions could be lost from TV contracts, ticket sales and corporate sponsorships.

Everyone will feel it. No one will be safe. Not Alabama. Not Clemson. Not LSU. Not Oklahoma. Not Ohio State.

But even if football happens, there are other financial question marks.

What about donors and fundraising? Nearly everyone seems to have taken a hit in this coronavirus economy. Donors won’t have as much to give, though athletic departments have almost no way to know what that will ultimately mean for their fundraising totals. Will they be off 25%? 50%? More?

And what about ticket sales? When sports begin again, people may want to watch the games, but their depleted bank accounts may not allow them to buy tickets. Or they may still be hesitant about cramming into stadiums or gyms or arenas.

Amid all of those unknowns, the NCAA Division I Council was asked to decide what to do about thousands of athletes with millions of dollars in scholarships. The council opted to make roster allowances to accommodate returning seniors and incoming freshmen, meaning many schools could have additional scholarship costs anywhere from $500,000 to nearly a million dollars.

In good times, that would be significant but doable.

Now?

It could have serious long-term ramifications.

Sports Business Journal writer Michael Smith, for example, said Monday the extra financial strain creates the real possibility the NCAA may reduce the number of sports required for a Division-I school. The minimum, currently at 14, may fall as low as 10.

That would mean sports cut and opportunities lost for who knows how many athletes.

That’s why the NCAA Division I Council decided to give schools the flexibility to offer less scholarship money to returning seniors. Maybe that will mitigate some of the financial pain. Maybe it will keep the NCAA from having to take more serious steps.

You have to hope each and every senior who chooses to return will get the same level of aid, but that is likely a pipe dream in these uncertain times.

A little like driving Trail Ridge in the dark and coming out unscathed.

The NCAA Division I Council made the right decision for spring-sport athletes Monday, but the journey is sure to be rocky for all involved.

Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or jcarlson@oklahoman.com. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.

Jenni Carlson

Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football... Read more ›

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