Padding the Stats: On the NCAA's Decision Regarding Winter Athletes
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Padding the Stats: On the NCAA’s Decision Regarding Winter Athletes

April 01, 2020

As Brandon Vogel wrote in Tuesday’s Hot Reads, the NCAA did the right thing — as complicated as it still might be — in regards to granting spring athletes another season of eligibility.

I think the NCAA probably got it right by declining to offer the same eligibility for winter athletes as well, unfortunately.

At first thought, something of a super season in 2020-21 with seniors like Cassius Winston and Markus Howard and Myles Powell — highly accomplished players who might have a future in the NBA but don’t project to be surefire first-round draft picks — would be really cool.

But as complicated as things are going to be figuring out spring sports, adding extra winter eligibility on top of that would take it to another level, and the arguments for the two seasons are not the same.

Spring sports had just gotten started. Nebraska baseball had played just 15 of its 54 regular season games when everything shut down. Softball got through 23 of its 55 games. Men’s and women’s tennis still had another month-and-a-half of matches. Men’s basketball, on the other hand, had completed its season in full, as did many other teams across the country.

The postseason was all that remained, and losing conference tournaments and the Big Dance absolutely sucks for us as fans but even more so for the players who grew up dreaming of the opportunity that was ripped away from many of them.

Before the NCAA’s eligibility deliberations and vote, the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee representatives from the Power Five conferences issued a statement with their recommendations.

One of those was as follows: “All athletes who did not have the opportunity to complete their championship season should be given the opportunity to pursue an extra year of eligibility.” That includes “athletes in winter sports that qualified for the postseason, and were unable to complete the entirety of their season.”

In an ideal world, that would be awesome. But it’s not that easy. First, very few teams had punched their ticket to March Madness considering everything stopped in the middle of most conference tournaments. Heck, Creighton and St. John’s only made it through one half before the season ended abruptly during halftime. Who determines which seniors get the extra eligibility? The NCAA Tournament Selection Committee declined to even issue a projected field. Then there’s the NIT, CBI and CIT. Somebody's probably getting left out that doesn’t feel like they deserved to be.

Then you have the athletes who played for teams who wouldn't have made the postseason. How would they feel about their classmates at other schools getting a whole other season because they missed out on what could have been one or two more games?

Every year, athletes see their seasons — even their senior seasons — cut short by injury. It’s terrible, but the season still counts for them unless its early enough to medically redshirt.

Also, granting an entire new season because an athlete didn’t get to compete in the postseason only furthers the idea that all that matters is the NCAA Tournament and that the regular season is trivial (despite the volume of the former being so much larger). A lot of sports seem to be trending that way as far as the way they’re viewed by fans and media, and I don’t get it. The regular season games are important too, and they’re fun.

I’m going to keep going with basketball here, because once again it is what I know best. The complications of granting another year of eligibility to players go beyond just finding the money to pay for their scholarships, even if scholarship limits were to be relaxed as part of he ruling.

Coaches recruit and players commit with the understanding that seniors will be leaving after the season, which not only frees up scholarships but also minutes for younger players either already in the program or ones the coaches are recruiting. We’re two weeks out from the late signing period opening for college basketball, which means a lot of the remaining unsigned players are likely hoping to make heir decisions soon. The majority of players signed back in the early window.

Adding seniors back into the mix for another year dramatically changes the situations for recruits at a lot of schools. So the players that signed back in December and felt great about their opportunity suddenly might feel differently, and the players that were closing in on a decision have something else to consider with little time to change course if that’s what they feel they need to do.

I feel awful for Nebraska’s wrestling team, coming off a second-place finish at the Big Ten Championships with 10 qualifiers for the NCAA Wrestling Championships (including seniors Isaiah White, Collin puritan and David Jensen), and for Dayton’s men’s basketball team, a 30 win squad featuring the NCAA Player of the Year in Obi Toppin, and for Oregon women’s basketball, the No. 2 team in the country led by arguably the most prolific player in the history of college basketball in Sabrina Ionescu. In a perfect world, all of those teams and many others around the country would get the opportunities to compete for conference and national championships that they earned.

But this isn’t a perfect world, and in trying to make things fair for those seniors who had their careers ended abruptly it would only make things unfair for others.

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