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Fifth year of NCAA eligibility for spring sports will be complex

Stony Brook women's lacrosse celebrates after defeating Albany

Stony Brook women's lacrosse celebrates after defeating Albany in the American East Conference Championship game at LaValle Stadium in Stony Brook on May 6th, 2018. Credit: Daniel De Mato

The NCAA acted in bold fashion Monday evening when it granted athletes in spring sports an extra year of eligibility because this season’s been lost to the COVID-19 outbreak. When the 34-member Division I Council made the move it was largely out of compassion, or as council member and Stony Brook athletic director Shawn Heilbron said Tuesday, “these student-athletes have unfinished business and time and experiences are not things you can buy back.”

But Heilbron simultaneously said, in a telephone interview, that it might be pushing over the first domino in a chain of unknown length.

Heilbron explained to Newsday that “we knew doing this was the right thing, but it was going to create a variety of complexities" that impact all Division I athletes.

Were the complexities to reach extremes, college sports could be looking at a tidal wave of graduate transfers or prospective freshmen opting for prep school. But they may not ever get to that point.

Financial issues could cause the biggest shockwaves. Colleges and universities have sustained a major impact because of the coronavirus outbreak, from lost broadcast revenue, to sending students home (often with some refunds) to the general cratering of the economy. The current seniors who receive a waiver to return for next spring are not guaranteed the full- or partial-scholarships they had this season or anything at all.

“Every school will come at it from a different place” because they are all different financially, Heilbron said. “We, for example, won’t have the luxury of winging it. We’re going to have to figure out who wants to come back and what people can afford.”

College sports will still have the same allocations to give for scholarships; men’s lacrosse, for instance, can allocate the value of 12.6 scholarships over 35 players or more. Current seniors will not count against a sport’s allocation cap next year, but the scholarship values in each sport won’t change. It will come down to what a school might be able to afford.

So Duke, just as an example, might be able to afford to bring more current seniors back than say, Marist. But we could also see negotiations within a team to find the money. The inequities between schools also could turn into inequities in roster size in any spring sport; imagine the old baseball model of September games after roster expansion in which it might be 26 vs. 31.

“There will be some honest and tough conversations,” Heilbron said. “These new opportunities can potentially impact a lot of people.”

But money may not be the only reason a current senior transfers or opts not to return. The program may have an incoming freshman – or a rising underclassman – that displaces him or her in the starting lineup or siphons off playing time. Any graduate transfer would have to be enrolled full-time at grad school to play.

“We could see a massive number of grad transfers – that’s a real possible scenario,” Heilbron said.

The inverse, too, is possible: An incoming freshman that expects to play could suddenly be blocked by an incumbent starting senior that opts to return. 

“I’m not worried about someone who also can play third base,” said Matt Brown-Eiring, who has played third and pitched for Connetquot and committed to Stony Brook. “I’ve always believed you have to earn your spot and I will go in ready to do that. And if I’m asked to play another position? Fine. I can play anywhere.”

However being displaced could lead to players asking out of national letters of intent, to go where there is more playing time, or opting for prep school.

“Prep school is by no means the plan or even at the top [of mind],” said Robert McGee, a Penn State lacrosse commit graduating this spring from Shoreham-Wading River. “I’d say it’s something my family has discussed as we’ve gone through this uncertain time.”

Heilbron said Stony Brook is in the same boat as many other Division I schools. There will be a feeling-out process of how many students are seeking the extra year and what the school can afford.

“We have to do as much as we can to make the seniors who want to come back ‘whole,’” he said. “But that may not always be truly ‘whole.’ We’re going to do as right by the athletes as we can. The move [to add eligibility] is something we should be proud of; these student-athletes lost the season through no fault of their own and we’re giving it back.”

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