Student athletes playing at Division I universities have to follow strict rules for eligibility, which are enforced by the NCAA, the organization that regulates U.S. college sports. They include academic standards, strict guidelines and timetables for recruitment, and a strict five years in which to complete four seasons of their sport, with exceptions for extraordinary circumstances. Extraordinary circumstances did in fact occur this spring, when a global pandemic upended society.
Even before colleges started sending students home, the NCAA moved to cancel all sporting events for the spring 2020 season, including March Madness, the lucrative and hyper-popular annual basketball tournament. Understanding the impact on many hard-working athletes of losing a season, the NCAA extended eligibility for all students who play spring sports at the Division I level. This decision will prove invaluable for student athletes who either wish to take a fifth year or continue their sport in grad school. That is, unless they wish to take that extra eligible year at a school in the Ivy League.
While Division I schools must make decisions within the confines of the NCAA regulations, there is nothing stopping them from creating stricter rules for themselves. The Ivy League is using this ability to refuse to extend eligibility to the students whose seasons coronavirus closures have cut short. The decision is consistent with past Ivy League policies, which have only allowed undergraduates to complete their requisite four seasons.
These policies are ridiculous. The five-year timeframe allows students to continue their athletic career should an injury or unpredictable event cut a season short. By holding fast to the undergraduate limit, the eight schools in the league are incentivizing eligible students to look elsewhere for graduate programs should they wish to continue athletics during their education, as many do. There are many academically rigorous universities with Division I sports that would allow students this opportunity.
Likewise, students intending on taking an extra year may be motivated to transfer to a non-Ivy to utilize their eligibility. However, Ivy students transferring would count against the scholarship limits for their new schools, as the NCAA does not currently have the capital to support the spring athletes at the same level as it would like under the circumstances.
The cancelling of winter tournaments and spring sports has put the NCAA in a tricky position financially. March Madness, the annual college basketball tournament, is a major source of funding for the NCAA, due to its major television presence and intense marketability. TV, marketing fees, tournaments comprised more than 90 percent of their annual revenue in 2018 and 2019, as disclosed in their financial statements.
However, due to coronavirus, the final tournaments for winter sports were cancelled, including March Madness. Much of the money collected from tournaments provides scholarships for athletes and facilitates less-profitable sports.
There is a loophole for remaining within the Ivy League in which some seniors could withdraw this spring and return next year, in order to preserve a year of eligibility by delaying their graduation. While no schools are encouraging this practice, it is tacitly accepted by some Ivys during these unsure times.
Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, however, have decided not to allow their seniors to participate in this practice. Yale declared an importance on maintaining their rules even in admittedly difficult circumstances. Princeton emphasized the importance of graduating on time. This is a decision estimated to impact a minute number of students, as it would only be worth the cost and effort for students already intending on taking an extra year.
The Ivy League and other schools, like Wisconsin, which decided to reject the NCAA’s exemptions, are needlessly punishing their athletes for a global problem. These students will not struggle to find an excellent school at which to use their eligibility during graduate programs, yet many would love to continue to run under the colors of their undergrad teams. The Ivy League should support and embrace such loyalty, not turn their students and athletes away.