Back to School? - Patrick Hruby
Back to School?

The NCAA gave extra eligibility to spring sport athletes affected by coronavirus cancellations. Now comes the hard part.
By Patrick Hruby | Global Sport Matters | April 2020
Bennett Gagnon was out running on Monday afternoon when his mobile phone, he says, started “blowing up.”

A fifth-year track and field runner for Gonzaga University, Gagnon had watched his final college sports season end before it started, when the National Collegiate Athletic Association canceled spring sports nationwide on March 12 because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

After Gonzaga subsequently closed campus residence halls and shifted classes online, Gagnon moved to his girlfriend’s parents’ house in Seattle. There, he continued to work toward a graduate degree, attempted to stay in shape by running one-mile loops around a nearby golf course, and put off scheduling an exit interview with the school’s athletic department—all while hoping that the NCAA would give spring sports athletes whose eligibility had expired, including himself, another chance to compete.

Gagnon was two loops into a run on Monday when a series of texts appeared on his phone, delivering the news he was waiting for: an announcement from the NCAA that all Division I athletes in spring sports will receive an extra season of eligibility to make up for the one that was lost to COVID-19.

Cutting his run short, Gagnon hurried back to the house. He promptly sent an email to a Gonzaga athletic administrator.

“I basically wrote, ‘I’m coming back next year, and I’ll be better about scheduling my exit interview then,’ ” he says. “Hearing that I can come back was a huge relief to me.”

For a college sports world thrown into an abrupt and unwelcome state of suspended animation by event cancellations, social distancing, and other coronavirus mitigation efforts, the NCAA’s decision to give heartbroken spring sport athletes a do-over was a rare bit of welcome news. But beyond the happy headlines, both athletes and schools now face some difficult decisions.

Outgoing seniors in sports including baseball, lacrosse, tennis, and track are welcome to return to compete next spring—but athletic departments are neither required to renew their athletic scholarships at the level of aid the athletes currently receive nor compelled to offer any aid at all.

That almost certainly will result in financial quandaries, particularly as broader COVID-19 control measures tip the larger economy into a probable recession or potential depression. Cash-strapped schools will have to decide if they can or want to foot the bill for particular athletes, while athletes will have to calculate whether returning is financially wise or feasible.

For those who do come back, academics also will be tricky: will they have to enroll in graduate programs? Can they find appropriate programs at their current schools? Are they better off trying to string out their undergraduate course work and delay graduation until spring 2021?

On the field, everyone will be dealing with thorny roster management issues, like managing the dissatisfaction of an incoming freshman who was promised playing time and is now stuck behind a fifth-year senior—or of the fifth-year senior who returned only to be benched in favor of a younger player being developed for the future.

“Personally, I’m delighted that there’s an opportunity for the spring sports seniors to at least get the option to come back and get a do-over for the year,” says Arizona State University athletic director Ray Anderson. “And in a very challenging situation, I think it was the right decision. But with the freedom given by the NCAA, there will be some painful moments.”

Students at the University of Washington are on campus for the last day of in-person classes on March 6, 2020. Photo by Karen Ducey/Getty Images

Back to school?

Gagnon knows painful moments. Since his senior year of high school, he had planned to run cross-country and track in college for as long as he could—four undergraduate seasons, followed by a fifth year as a graduate student.

Rather than look for a full-time job after receiving his undergraduate degree last spring, Gagnon says, he took out a $30,000 loan to help pay for a one-year Master of Business Administration program that also would allow him to keep running.

“I knew it wasn’t necessarily the most financially beneficial way to start my life,” he says. “But the time and experience, I would appreciate. It was a way to finish up this thing that I love and try to chase that dream one last time.”

Injuries last year had derailed that chase. Gagnon missed the 2019 spring outdoor track season with a foot injury and a misdiagnosed heart condition. He sat out last fall’s cross-country season with knee tendinitis and a sore back. This spring, he says, was his “last shot to wear the jersey.”

In early March, Gagnon finally was running pain-free—and, he says, “killing it in my workouts.” He was excited for Gonzaga’s first outdoor meet of the season, scheduled to take place in Spokane on March 19.

Then came the NCAA’s COVID-19 cancellation announcement, which Gagnon first heard about via a group text with his teammates. What? Wait. Really? All spring sports? S__t.

“It made sense given the circumstances and was absolutely the right decision,” he says. “But I thought I was done being a college athlete. I was just kind of in shock.”

That shock was shared by athletes across the country. Arizona State men’s basketball player Grant Fogerty, a walk-on senior, was with his teammates in Las Vegas for the Pac-12 tournament when their sport was shut down. One afternoon, they were preparing to play a quarterfinal game and thinking ahead to a potential NCAA Tournament bid; the next morning, they were boarding a return flight to Tempe.

“That was tough to take,” Fogerty says. “We had our last practice, our last game, put our jerseys on for the last time. And we didn’t even know it.”

In the wake of the sudden shutdown, people including University of Massachusetts athletic director Ryan Bamford and Texas Christian University baseball player Haylen Green called on the NCAA to grant extra eligibility to spring sports athletes, especially seniors. A group of athletes from the Power Five conferences on the NCAA’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) released a statement recommending that the association also extend relief to winter sports athletes who were unable to complete their championships; the statement also recommended renewing the scholarships of all returning seniors. Gagnon created an online petition asking for the same; in addition, he asked that the NCAA cover returning athletes’ room and board costs and permit those who finished degrees in 2020 to compete next spring without enrolling in additional classes.

The NCAA’s subsequent decision gave athletes some of what they wanted—but not all of it. Winter sports athletes such as Fogerty will not receive additional eligibility. Schools will be allowed to offer—or not offer—renewed or reduced scholarships on a case-by-case basis. Athletes still will be required to be active students. “The expectation is that if they do come back, they will be restored students academically,” Anderson says. “So if you graduated, you come back and get in a master’s program, get in a graduate program. You’re not going to come back to campus and just hang out and play ball.”

According to an NCAA online database, just over 68,000 athletes participated in Division I spring sports—baseball, softball, tennis, golf, outdoor track and field, lacrosse, rowing, men’s volleyball, beach volleyball, and women’s water polo—in 2017-18. If those numbers were similar this spring and a fourth of those athletes were seniors, then roughly 17,000 athletes are eligible to come back next spring.

Some won’t. Georgetown University athletic director Lee Reed says that most of the 110 spring sports seniors at his school already had landed future jobs. He says he expects the majority of them to “keep their jobs and move on with the next chapter of their lives.”

Others will stay. James Madison University athletic director Jeff Bourne estimates that more than half of the spring sports seniors at James Madison will return next season, while TCU baseball coach Jim Schlossnagle says that every senior on his team has expressed an interest in returning for the 2021 season, if given the opportunity.

Many of those who come back will pay for the opportunity. Individual spring sports athletes often receive partial scholarships, which means that even if their schools renew their previous aid, they will have to take out additional student loans or spend more money out of pocket to cover tuition and other costs. Those athletes also may have to consider transferring if their current schools lack graduate programs that fit their academic skills and interests.

Gagnon says that he is grappling with these issues now. He received a $5,000 partial athletic scholarship from Gonzaga this year, as well as a $2,000 academic award. But tuition, books, and living costs for his master’s program totaled about $40,000—which led him to borrow about $33,000 in student loans.

Gagnon originally planned to finish his master’s degree in August. He’s now trying to determine if he can spread his classes out as much as possible over the summer, fall, and next spring in order to take advantage of his extra eligibility without having to be a full-time student or start another graduate degree program.

“I don’t think I can afford to take out another loan,” he says. “If I had to start another degree, I’d have to sit down and really think hard about what I do.”

The court is dismantled following the announcement that the 2020 Atlantic 10 Men’s Basketball Tournament has been cancelled on March 12, 2020. Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

“Folks will struggle”

Schools also will be confronted with tough choices. Bourne told The Washington Post that the scholarships of James Madison’s current spring sport seniors cost his department a total of about $450,000. According to a recent USA TODAY analysis of the financial records of 20 Division I public school athletic departments, picking up the scholarship costs of returning seniors next spring could cost Power Five programs $500,000 to $900,000 per school and Football Championship Subdivision programs around $400,000 per school.

“That general ballpark sounds right,” Anderson says. “A lot will depend on how many [spring] sports you sponsor. But the business part of it is something that, very frankly, folks will struggle with. Spring sports are usually cost centers, not revenue generators. So if you’re adding another $500,000 or $900,000 to a sport that is a cost center, that can be very difficult to handle.

“That doesn’t mean that [renewing scholarships for returning seniors] isn’t the right thing to do. It’s just a challenge. A lot of schools—I would venture to guess the majority—will have administrations and head coaches deciding which seniors they want back. Particularly if you have recruited freshmen to come in and have sophomores and juniors who have been working their way up and want their turn. That’s just the nitty-gritty of it.”

The NCAA says that schools will be able to tap into the association’s Student Assistance Fund—which exists to help low-income college athletes with immediate needs, like airfare to attend a funeral—to pay for renewing seniors’ scholarships. Anderson says that the process for doing so remains unclear and that the current coronavirus-related economic downturn could mean many more athletes than usual will also be attempting to access the fund for its original purpose during the coming academic year.

According to Georgetown’s Reed, the fund contains approximately $18 million in a typical year and is divided among all NCAA schools.

Andy Schwarz, a Bay Area-based economist who has worked extensively on college sports litigation and studied the industry’s finances, writes in his blog that, in many cases, bringing back spring sports seniors will be less costly than it seems. How so? Consider a tennis player with a partial scholarship worth $5,000 and a full tuition cost of $30,000.

Having that player come back with the same partial scholarship would require his athletic department to find an extra $5,000 to give to her school’s general fund. The department would also have to cover the additional travel, laundry, and miscellaneous costs of having an extra player on its tennis roster. However, that same player would be paying an additional $25,000 to that general fund—which means that while her athletic department’s budget would be stretched, her school as a whole almost certainly would be bringing in more revenue.

“It’s really hard to tease out of all of this exactly what it is really costing schools to have athletes on partial scholarships,” says Ellen Staurowsky, a sport management professor at Drexel University and co-author of “College Athletes for Hire: The Evolution and Legacy of the NCAA Amateur Myth.”

A related and much larger issue, Anderson says, is the overall impact of COVID-19 on athletic department finances and planning—what the NCAA’s public statement on spring sports eligibility relief termed “the financial uncertainty faced by higher education.”

College sports form a multibillion-dollar industry that has enjoyed steady growth over the past two decades, largely thanks to rising broadcast rights fees for major campus football and men’s basketball. As nonprofit entities, athletic departments tend to spend what they earn—and rather than build up large, rainy-day cash reserves, many programs have borrowed heavily to finance the construction of new stadiums, state-of-the-art athletic training complexes, and academic centers. “Most departments are on a paycheck-to-paycheck basis,” Anderson says.

The pandemic already is upending this business model. Following the cancellation of the Division I men’s basketball tournament—which generates roughly $1 billion in annual broadcast revenue—the NCAA announced that it was reducing its annual payments to Division I conferences and schools for 2020 from a total of just under $600 million to $225 million.

Meanwhile, athletic departments are bracing for a recession that almost certainly will hurt ticket sales and sponsorship deals, make boosters and donors less generous, and lead to reduced state funding for schools—which in turn could trickle down to sports programs. With COVID-19 shutting down campuses, the University of Maryland system is requiring athletic departments to refund part of the athletic fee that students pay. Other states and schools are likely to follow suit. A recent survey of athletic directors at Division I Football Bowl Subdivision schools found that 35 percent expect at least a 30 percent drop in revenue for 2020-21.

“One of the byproducts we’re facing is people who have lost 25 or 30% of their net value of their portfolio or their retirement funds. That’s going to have some impact on us,” Utah State athletic director John Hartwell recently told USA TODAY. “You could have someone who was buying a suite and 10 club seats but may say, hey, I don’t need those extra seats anymore. I think we all have to be prepared for that, but we’re trying to be as proactive as we can. We’re making sure we try to touch base with all of our donors to keep them engaged.”

Even that’s more difficult in the coronavirus era: spring is usually the prime fundraising season for athletic departments, with administrators and big-name coaches alike wooing donors at meetings, retreats, and golf outings. “I can’t tell you how many of our primary fundraisers that are golf-centric have been canceled,” Anderson says. “All of our major spring events are golf or [are held] outdoors at one of these beautiful resorts. You take donors and VIPs to hang out, get them enticed and excited for what you are doing, and ask them for support. Now, all of that is a very big unknown.”

“The virus makes the timeline”

Of course, the biggest unknown is the one paralyzing the country as a whole: just how bad will the pandemic get, and how long will the pain and disruption caused by illness, death, and mitigation efforts last?

Administrators such as Anderson and Reed are currently preoccupied with making sure their staffs and students are as safe as possible, and with planning for the resumption of regular campus life. However, public health experts don’t expect a COVID-19 vaccine to be developed and widely distributed for at least a year. Nor do they have a clear idea of when the virus will be suppressed enough to allow the easing of social distancing.

“You don’t make the timeline,” National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Anthony Fauci recently told CNN. “The virus makes the timeline.”

It’s entirely possible that schools still will be conducting remote classes in the fall. It’s also possible that campuses will be reopened but that college sports will still be shut down: nobody wants tens of thousands of football fans to be jammed into a stadium and create a repeat of the Italian soccer match in February that accelerated the spread of coronavirus in that country and has been dubbed a “biological bomb.”

A year without football—far and away the main revenue generator for most athletic departments—could radically reshape the financial picture at almost every school, further impacting decisions about returning spring sport seniors.

“We haven’t factored in the worst-case scenario yet,” Anderson says. “But if we lose football, it’s going to be a different set of conversations across the board.”

For now, Anderson has little choice but to wait. As does Gagnon, the runner. Assuming he can spread out his remaining classes through next spring, he plans to find a part-time job—preferably at a finance firm but, if necessary, at a running store—in order to pay his rent and allow him to continue to train for a last shot at collegiate competition.

“I’m not sure how I’m going to make a sixth year work,” he says. “But it’s something that I really want to work out. Otherwise, I’m going to look back when I’m older and regret that I didn’t come back.”