As the sports-related fallout from the coronavirus outbreak mounted last month, one big question was this: What would happen to college athletes in spring sports who, in the wake of the NCAA’s March 12 decision, had their entire seasons wiped out?
Of particular interest: Seniors who were losing their final year of eligibility and facing not just the loss of one season but the abrupt end of a career.
The notion of extending their eligibility into 2020-21 gained quick momentum among the fair-minded, and the NCAA agreed. Early last week, the college sports governing body issued a ruling that said spring sports seniors could be granted an extra year to make up for the one lost, without their spots counted against roster or scholarship limits.
End of story and a silver lining in a bad situation, right?
Well, not exactly. Some athletes, like star Gophers softball pitcher Amber Fiser, rejoiced and announced they will be coming back.
But the ruling by the NCAA said member schools could apply for the waivers for spring athletes, but it didn’t say they had to do so. And one high-profile school with a lot of local interest has decided to opt out: Wisconsin.
“The athletic department has made the decision to not pursue waivers that would extend the eligibility of our senior student-athletes,” the school said in a news release Thursday, becoming what is believed to the first Power Five school to make the decision. “Student-athletes in their fourth year of eligibility have concluded their careers with us.”
That was after Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez addressed the topic on his monthly radio show and called the NCAA’s decision to grant seniors an extra year “an overreaction,” per ESPN.com.
“That creates a lot of problems,” Alvarez said. “You’ve got a group of freshmen coming in. Do you want this group coming back? How does that [affect] roster size? There’s a financial burden that goes along with that.”
Indeed, also per that ESPN.com story another of the Gophers’ Big Ten rivals — Iowa — has said that the resulting scholarship cost of bringing back the Hawkeyes spring sports seniors who want to return would be $500,000.
Spring sports include baseball, softball, tennis, golf and outdoor track and field — which are almost always “non-revenue” programs supported by revenue-generating sports like football and basketball.
As schools weigh massive revenue hits to athletics — $75 million in a worst-case scenario next year at the U — cost-cutting will surely be on the table in multiple areas.
That said, what Wisconsin is doing seems fundamentally wrong — and, to use Alvarez’s own term, “short-sighted.” It’s preferable to more draconian measures like cutting a sport altogether, and it’s understandable that hard decisions need to be made.
But on this particular subject, let’s hope that the Badgers prove to be outliers instead of trailblazers.