Whether college football players play a lot in the fall, a little in the spring or not at all over the next 10 months, some athletic administrators want to give them a mulligan on the 2020-21 season.
The NCAA Division I Council meets Wednesday with two important issues on the agenda:
— What will happen with the eligibility of fall sport athletes heading into an uncertain season already impacted by the pandemic?
— Should the NCAA stage fall sports championship events in the spring now that most of Division I has punted on trying to play sports in the first portion of the school year?
The Council's job is to make a recommendation that the Division I Board of Directors can vote on when it meets Friday.
“I think the most forgiving, flexible plan would be the best,” Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione said of the first question.
The council already made one recommendation last week. A year of eligibility and an additional season of competition would be granted to fall sport athletes who opt out of this coming season because of COVID-19 concerns or if they participate in 50% or less of the maximum number of competitions allowed by NCAA rules.
For a football player, that would be half or fewer of 12 regular-season games. Most of the Division I teams still hoping to play this fall have fewer than 12 games scheduled. Meanwhile, four Bowl Subdivision conferences and all of the Championship Subdivision have said they won't play in the fall and instead try to have a spring football season.
Not a single game is guaranteed because of the pandemic, and athletes are wondering what should they do.
“For me and my parents, one of the things we’re focusing on is eligibility,” said Stanford defensive back Joshua Drayden, who is part of the players' rights group We Are United. "We’re just trying to weigh all of our options. Same for a lot of athletes around the Pac-12 and the nation."
Because of the uncertainty and so many variables, West Virginia athletic director Shane Lyons, who is part of the DI Council, would like to allow athletes in all fall sports to get an extra year of eligibility and competition, regardless of how much they play and when.
“We talk about the student-athlete experience and definitely the season's going to be different. With crowd sizes, the number of competitions,” said Lyons, who is also head of the NCAA's football oversight committee. “Why charge these student-athletes with a year of eligibility? That's one thing they don't have to worry about.”
As Lyons and others in college sports describe it, the problem for athletes is not just weighing whether to opt out or in at the start of the season.
There is concern that a season filled with disruptions will have players who opted in reversing course before reaching the minimum number of games, which would burn a year of eligibility. It also could tempt coaches to hold back players they normally would have played in order to gain that extra year.
Lyons said protecting eligibility for all fall athletes "seems to be getting momentum” among athletic administrators.
Ted Gumbart, commissioner of the ASUN Conference — which does not sponsor football — said his league is in favor of raising the percentage of games an athlete would be permitted to play and still get the year of eligibility back.
“My understanding is there will be some discussion about 75%,” said Gumbart, who is also a member of the Council.
“There is going to be a solid argument made in favor of saying, ‘This should be a freebie,’” he added.
Calling 2020 a free year for fall sport athletes would mimic what the NCAA did after the spring sports season was canceled by COVID-19 in March. Athletes were guaranteed a make-good on the eligibility but not guaranteed a scholarship. That would be left up to the school.
The NCAA waived scholarship limits and roster size restrictions in spring sports where necessary to allow for the extra players, but only for this coming season.
The same would have to be done for fall sports. Instead of setting a new cap for football scholarships (85 in FBS and 63 in FCS), the sixth-year seniors would not count against the cap next year.
“How does everybody says it's fair around the country when one team has 22 seniors that come back and one team has eight seniors that come back?" Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell said. “I don’t know there’s going to be any one way that will be fair.”
As for fall championships possibly being held in the spring, Lyons said fields are likely to be cut by as much as 75%, bringing 64-team brackets to 16.
The limited space means conferences big and small could decide that holding NCAA championships in sports such as soccer, women's volleyball and FCS football might not be worth it.
“Access to championships is really important,” Missouri Valley Football Conference Commissioner Patty Viverito said. “We’re going to continue to advocate for as robust an opportunity as we can get in the spring.”
This story has been corrected to show that the Division I Board of Directors, not the Board of Governors, must approve the council’s recommendations.
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