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As of October, all three Division levels have granted fall and winter sport athletes an extra year of eligibility, whether they compete in the 2020-21 season or not. The Division 3 committee took this ruling a step further and announced that 2020-21 spring sport athletes are also eligible for an extra year of eligibility. This means athletes have the flexibility to both compete freely in the 2020-21 season and return for an additional year of competition.
Traditionally, a student-athlete has 5 years to play 4 years of their sport. An extra year means a current college student-athlete would have 6 years to play their 4 years. This means, NCAA student-athletes can compete in all or a portion of the 2020-21 season, but it won’t be counted against their years of eligibility depending on their division level specific eligibility rules.
For example, a D1 freshman athlete, whether they compete in the 2020-21 competition season or not, is eligible for an extra year of competition. Starting their sophomore year, this athlete competes in 100% of the season through senior year. After their senior season, this athlete’s eligibility count is 3 years and they decide to enroll as a fifth-year senior to compete in their fourth collegiate season. Upon the completion of their fourth competition season, this athlete has the option to compete for one final season, a fifth year, because the NCAA D1 had granted all 2020-21 athletes an extra year of eligibility. If this athlete returns for a fifth year, they will have been a member of the team and eligible to receive financial aid for six year, because their first year of competition didn’t count against their years eligibility.
For college coaches, this extra year of eligibility means roster needs may be different for the 2021-22 season. If 50% of the 2020-21 senior class decides to return for an additional year of competition, coaches will need to fill fewer roster sports and possibly re-evaluate the positions they are recruiting. This not only means competition for roster spots will be increasingly more difficult but playing time for committed recruits who play the same position as a returning senior may see less playing time during their rookie year of competition.
In anticipation of the impacts COVID-19 will continue to have on college sports, on October 15, the NCAA Division 1 committee agreed to grant winter sport student-athletes who compete during the 2020-21 season an extra year of eligibility and an additional year to complete their eligibility.
On October 20, the NCAA Division 2 followed suit and extended eligibility relief to winter sports athletes whose season may be impacted by the pandemic. Previously, Division 2 athletes would only receive an extra year of eligibility if their team did not compete in more than 50% of the scheduled competitions. After revising the eligibility rules, the Division 2 committee is now granting fall and winter athletes an extra year of eligibility, regardless of if they participate in the 2020-21 sports season.
The NCAA Division 3 committee has not only announced plans to grant eligibility relief to winter sport athletes, but they have revised their eligibility relief plans for all 2020-21 sports season athletes. As of October 29, the NCAA D3 committee granted all 2020-21 fall, winter and spring athletes an extra year of eligibility, even if they participate in the 2020-21 sports season.
— Inside the NCAA (@InsidetheNCAA) October 14, 2020
— NCAA Division II (@NCAADII) October 20, 2020
— NCAA Division III (@NCAADIII) October 29, 2020
With athletes eligible to return for the 2021-22 season, regardless of how many games they competed in during the 2020-21 season, some coaches may curve their recruiting efforts to focus on bringing back existing seniors. For example, when the NCAA first granted eligibility relief to 2019-20 spring sport athletes, we asked college coaches if they expect seniors to take advantage of their extra year of eligibility. Of the respondents, 43% of spring sport coaches said they expect seniors to return for an extra year of eligibility.
With their attention turned to existing roster spot holders, college coaches may delay their recruiting efforts as they work with current seniors to determine how many athletes plan to return for an additional year. Once coaches know which seniors plan to return for additional year, they will have a clearer understanding of how many roster spots remain open for potential 2021 high school recruits.
The transfer portal is also a focus for many college coaches looking for reliable athletes who have already proven that they can play competitively at the collegiate level and manage their academics. In a recent survey we sent to college coaches, 22% said they expect to recruit more transfer students. Coaches like Mark Byington, Head Basketball Coach for JMU, told AP News that they are turning to the transfer portal for older, experienced athletes who can provide stability for the team during these uncertain times, “We wanted to get older. And the best evaluations we could get during a pandemic was watching guys who played against other Division I players.”
Of course, not all schools are allowing seniors to return. One caveat to the NCAA’s ruling on an extra year of eligibility is that individual schools and conferences have the authority to adopt this rule or not. This means that some schools may allow seniors to return for an extra year of eligibility, while others may choose not to offer this due to program budgets, housing availability, etc. For example, the Ivy League announced that it would not give an extra year of eligibility to student-athletes whose season has been cut short by the coronavirus pandemic. NCSA’s Phill Wells, former D1 football player, discusses NCAA extended eligibility relief for 2020-21 season fall sports athletes and the impact this will have on upcoming recruits.
As a result of the NCAA’s eligibility relief, coaches’ recruiting needs for the 2021 class may change, as there is now an opportunity for senior athletes to compete for an additional year. While it’s still uncertain how many Division 1, 2 & 3 spring sport athletes will take advantage of an additional year to compete, college coaches were split when asked if they expect seniors to return for an extra year of eligibility, with 43% of spring sports coaches expecting seniors to return for an extra year of eligibility. The NCAA Division 1, Division 2 and Division 3 Committees announced last March that eligibility relief would be granted to student-athletes who compete in spring sports:
Division I Council Coordination Committee agrees eligibility relief is appropriate for spring sports: pic.twitter.com/u7hwYOyTDV
— Inside the NCAA (@InsidetheNCAA) March 13, 2020
— NCAA Division II (@NCAADII) March 13, 2020
Division III Administrative Committee decisions: pic.twitter.com/wBB7IkW1C1
— NCAA Division III (@NCAADIII) March 13, 2020
There are two factors that control the availability of scholarships at the D1 and D2 levels. The NCAA scholarship limits per sport and whether or not the school is fully funded. For D1 fall sports, seniors who have scholarships and who will be using the extra year of eligibility will not count against the team’s scholarship limit for the 2021-22 season. The D2 level has not provided any waivers, so there is no potential for D2 programs to offer additional scholarship money for fall sports recruits.
This does not mean a college will go over the limit of maximum scholarships. Each school will decide how many scholarships they can fund for each team depending on their budget. In a recent survey, 80% of college coaches said they do not plan on cutting scholarships as part of their budget cutting measures. For recruits pursuing an athletic scholarship, hopefully this means the maximum, and possibly over the maximum number of scholarships, will be available for the 2021-22 school year.
Here is an example of how this could play out for a college team:
The determining factor is whether or not a school can afford to give scholarships over the maximum.
2021 and 2022 recruits need to be realistic about the possibility of fewer scholarship opportunities and available roster spots. Recruits will need to re-evaluate their list of target schools to widen their college search geographically and consider programs across all division levels. This means student-athletes may find themselves at a school that wasn’t originally on their list.
Recruits who are set on competing at the D1 level should expand their search to include D2 and competitive NAIA programs. Student-athletes looking to attend college in a certain region of the country should expand their search to include other regions, as well. Recruits who planned on receiving an athletic scholarship should look into other alternatives to cover college costs, such as merit-based scholarships, grants, work study and etc. It’s now more important than ever for student-athletes to keep an open mind about where they plan to compete for the next four years.
NCSA’s Danny Koenig provides insight as a former NCAA Division 1 and 3 college coach into what NCAA Division 1 coaches have shared with him regarding eligibility relief, returning seniors and the college recruiting process.
Delayed College Recruiting
Recruits will also need to be prepared for a delayed recruiting process. As college coaches navigate the new NCAA recruiting rules, they will need to work with current roster spot holders to determine which athletes plans to take advantage of their extra year of eligibility. Coaches will need to know which athletes plans to return for additional year in order to understand how many roster spots will be available for the incoming class. With no rules set around when student-athletes must make this decision, college coaches may have to delay their recruiting process as they wait for these decisions to be made.
During the recruiting process, recruits should proactively reach out to college coaches to see if they know how many seniors plan to return and what roster availability looks like for the coming year. Keep in mind that coaches may not always be able to provide an answer, but it allows the recruit to show their interest in the program, while also helping them evaluate whether the program is still a realistic college option.
Former NCAA Division 1 and 3 college coach, NCSA’s Danny Koenig uses his coaching experience to provide advice for 2021 and 2022 recruits who are navigating changes to the recruiting process.
Alternative College Options
Some student-athletes may choose alternative options to attending a four-year college or university as they wait to see the full impact of the pandemic on college athletics. Some of these options include taking a gap year or attending a Junior College and transferring to a four-year institution.
The NCAA Eligibility Center partnered with the NCAA membership and created an FAQ guide for student-athletes that covers recent changes to the NCAA recruiting rules, calendar and eligibility. NCAA Eligibility Center COVID-19 Response FAQs.