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Refreshing the NCAA eligibility for spring athletes could be complicated, costly

Refreshing the NCAA eligibility for spring athletes could be complicated, costly

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APTOPIX Virus Outbreak College Baseball

Players with the University of Missouri baseball team wait in the baggage claim area of Chicago's Midway Airport on March 12, only to arrive in Chicago and then get notified that the team's SEC Conference opener with Alabama had been canceled. (AP Photo)

COLUMBIA, Mo. — Since the coronavirus wiped out his 2020 season, Jackson Lancaster, a junior outfielder for the Missouri baseball team, has returned home to Corinth, Miss., where he keeps his lefthanded swing fresh in a makeshift batting cage in his family’s barn.

These days, you have to improvise.

“It’s kind of therapeutic for me,” he said Friday in a phone interview. “We’re used to playing. We were about to start conference play. Everything got cut off so quick, it kind of shocked us.”

For Lancaster, his Mizzou teammates and fellow college athletes around the country whose seasons were interrupted and eventually canceled because of COVID-19, a consolation prize could be on the way. On Monday, the NCAA Division I Council Committee will vote on whether athletes who participate in winter and spring sports should receive another year of eligibility.

The NCAA announced March 20 that the committee agrees athletes in spring sports should receive eligibility relief but also supports giving schools “the autonomy to make their own decisions in the best interest of their campus, conference and student-athletes.”

In Lancaster’s case, he’d gladly welcome the chance to hit the reset button on his junior season. The Tigers were a day away from playing their first Southeastern Conference series when the SEC suspended play. A week later the league canceled all spring seasons entirely.

“I would love to get the year back,” he said. “I don’t want to lose this year at Mizzou. I’d want to come back a junior and be ready to roll again.”

For some teams in some sports, refreshing every athlete’s eligibility clock by a year might be more complicated than it sounds given scholarship limits and financial costs. If current seniors return for another year of competition, coaches have to account for incoming recruits who have signed letters of intent to join their team for the next academic year.

When the NCAA first announced plans to explore the topic, Missouri athletics director Jim Sterk expressed caution.

“It’s a complicated decision,” he said earlier this month. “It’s not just deciding that these student-athletes can come (back). Then there’s going to be repercussions on the size of your squad. What are you able to do as far as the number of scholarships? All of those things would have to be decided before a carte blanche decision like that is made.”

Without expanding scholarship limits, the roster shuffling could be especially challenging in NCAA equivalency sports like baseball, where coaches divide scholarships across their roster. Division I baseball teams have 11.7 scholarships to split among a maximum of 35 players. For the 2019 fiscal year — the 2018-19 academic year — Mizzou had 27 players receiving some athletics aid. Adding more players to the mix for next year turns an already tricky numbers game into a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle.

“It’s definitely something that’s going to be very difficult to manage,” Missouri baseball coach Steve Bieser said. “It’s not a one-year thing. It’s a five-year thing. How do you structure that? The bottom line is it’s not really up to us as coaches to say this will work. How will the NCAA work with us to help manage the scholarship situation? Baseball is so unique. It’s the toughest scholarship situation to manage.”

That’s because of the MLB draft. Going into the draft each summer, college coaches are unsure which of their high school recruits and draft-eligible juniors will get drafted and choose to sign professional contracts rather than play the following college season. Lancaster, a 2019 38th-round pick by the Mariners out of junior college, said he and his teammates have been wondering how this summer’s draft — will there be a draft and when? — will muddle the puzzle further. If the NCAA moves forward and grants eligibility relief, will seniors like Mizzou slugger Peter Zimmermann or pitcher Art Joven sign with a pro team this summer or return for another senior year?

“We don’t even know if there’s going to be a draft,” Bieser said. “We’re just sitting in limbo.”

The eligibility issue is simpler for teams with more roster flexibility. Missouri’s softball team has just one senior, pitcher Eli Daniel.

“You only get four years to play at this level,” coach Larissa Anderson said. “For us it’s the professional career because you’re not making a living playing softball for the rest of your life. Everyone’s entitled to those four years. In every spring sport situation they should get those four years.”

In some cases, seniors might not choose to return for another season of eligibility. The Mizzou women’s golf team has just one senior, Cherise Otter, and she plans to attend graduate school in London next year, coach Stephanie Priesmeyer said.

Still, the financial costs figure to be steep, even for Power Five conference schools like Mizzou that operate on budgets that exceed $100 million. A USA Today study projected that granting only seniors another year of eligibility would cost Power 5 public schools between $500,000 to $900,000.

“I don’t see how you pay for it with every single player,” Priesmeyer said. “I think it would be great to do something for the seniors. But a senior could graduate and go in the transfer portal and go somewhere else. I’m not totally on board yet. It could be a logistical nightmare.”

For the 2019 fiscal year, Mizzou’s spring teams consisted of 140 athletes on athletics scholarships for a total cost of $3,636,848, according to MU’s annual submission to the NCAA Membership Financial Reporting System. That’s more than $26,000 per athlete in the sports of baseball, softball, men’s and women’s golf, men’s and women’s track and field and women’s tennis. Those costs, which account for athletes’ tuition, fees, room, board and books, made up more than 3 percent of MU’s athletics budget — in a year when MU operated at a budget deficit for the third straight year.

Adding more athletics aid to the balance sheet just as the coronavirus threatens to wreak havoc on future revenues could force schools to slash spending in other areas, especially schools outside of the major conferences. With the men’s and women’s NCAA basketball tournaments cancelled, the NCAA has already announced it will distribute only $225 million to Division I schools this year, down from its projection of $600 million. MU received $2,705,238 in NCAA distributions last year, 2.5 percent of its 2019 revenue.

“Missouri’s in a place where we can figure out a way to cover (the costs),” MU track coach Brett Halter said. “But you’d worry about the non-Power 5. Who knows what will happen with the basketball cancellation and all the financial implications. As an example, how does an SIU Edwardsville handle this without being a football school?”

Back in Mississippi, while he waits out the sports shutdown and hones his swing in the family barn, Lancaster wonders about the future of his career, his team and his sport. But he also knows there’s more at stake.

“Yeah, I love baseball and I love playing at Mizzou,” he said. “I hate the fact that we’re at home right now and not playing. But there are people out there who can’t work to provide money for their families. People are getting laid off like crazy. We love sports. I love baseball. You can’t be selfish and think it’s only affecting us. It’s affecting everyone.”

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