New Texas track and field coach Edrick Floréal (left) poses with UT athletics director Chris Del Conte at Royal-Memorial Stadium on June 14, 2018, in Austin. AMANDA VOISARD/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Kirk Bohls

American-Statesman Staff

Column

Bohls: Rigid NCAA offers compassionate response, extra years to athletes

Posted March 31st, 2020

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Story highlights
  • The welfare of student-athletes across the landscape got a rare, favorable ruling from the rigid NCAA that trumped politics and pocketbooks when it compassionately voted Monday to grant an additional season and an extra year of eligibility for all spring sport athletes.
  • “We at the University of Texas supported it,” Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte told me Tuesday morning. “We supported every kid getting a year back. ... I was ecstatic."
  • If all 49 of the other seniors on scholarship choose to return for the 2020-2021 school year in their various sports, Texas senior associate athletic director for compliance Lori Hammond estimated the cost to the university at $1.2 million.

Score one for the NCAA.

Not sure I can remember the last time we scored any at all for that too-often disconnected, slow-moving body, but the organization that governs college athletics got this one right.

The welfare of student-athletes across the landscape got a rare, favorable ruling from the rigid NCAA that trumped politics and pocketbooks when it compassionately voted Monday to grant an additional season and an extra year of eligibility for all Division I athletes in spring sports whose seasons were abruptly canceled by the coronavirus pandemic. Not just seniors, but all athletes.

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Good on them.

It was a logical and necessary decision since most of the seasons of spring sports like baseball, softball, golf, tennis and track weren’t even at their halfway point in early March. Texas teams were thriving across the board and hadn’t even begun Big 12 play yet when the cancellation of all sports came down.

Texas head coach David Pierce (22) talks to his team during the annual alumni game on Feb. 1 at UFCU Disch-Falk Field. (Nick Wagner/American-Statesman)

So this made sense when little else does these days.

So did not rewarding those athletes in the winter sports like basketball, swimming, hockey and such who by and large had completed either their full seasons or everything but conference and national championship competition. It’s a tough choice, but at least spring athletes had some semblance of normalcy restored.

“We at the University of Texas supported it,” UT athletic director Chris Del Conte told me Tuesday. “We supported every kid getting a year back. We were having a tremendous spring season. All of our sports were ranked in the top 10. Baseball was skyrocketing. I was ecstatic about the decision.”

So were the head coaches of his eight spring sports that were impacted. Del Conte talked to all of them, and they couldn’t have been more excited. Some suggested the NCAA should wait and see if football is also disrupted, but that delay would make no sense and extremely inhibit spring athletes from making smart decisions in an unknown environment. They needed clarity — and help — now.

It will not be an inexpensive decision. Nothing is anymore.

Texas totals 198 athletes in its spring sports calendar, 52 of them seniors although three aren’t receiving any aid at all.

If all 49 of the other seniors on scholarship choose to return for the 2020-21 school year in their various sports, senior associate athletic director for compliance Lori Hammond estimated the cost to the university at $1.2 million, “assuming they all came back and were kept at the same amount of aid.” Texas A&M athletic director Ross Bjork guesstimated his cost at under $600,000.

Texas softball pitcher Miranda Elish, who threw a perfect game just before the season was called off, has already said she’d come back for another season if the NCAA allowed her to. Monday’s NCAA vote clears the way for her. (Nick Wagner/American-Statesman)

The cost of a single in-state scholarship at Texas is currently $30,666, covering tuition and fees, room and board and books, while an out-of-state grant costs the athletic department $59,432. Coaches have to know how to stretch a dollar.

Of those eight Longhorns sports, all but women’s tennis are equivalency sports. Tennis, like football and men’s and women’s basketball, are head count sports. 

“It’ll be a significant expense, but that’s minimal (compared) to the opportunity you’re giving the kids,” Del Conte said. “For the majority of these kids, this was their last hurrah. There is an expense to it, but it’s worth it.”

Totally agree.

In fact, I’ve long advocated a five-year window for athletes to use their four years of eligibility and take out all the guesswork and (since modified for football) redshirt decisions. But, that, too carries a big dollar sum.

There will be nuances, of course.

Kaitlyn Papp, a junior this year, will be part of a star-studded roster for the UT women’s golf team next year. A couple of highly-regarded recruits will mix with star veterans. (Texas Athletics)

“It’s uncharted territory,” Hammond said. “What do you do with transfers? How much of a spike in transfers will we see? There’s a lot of things we don’t know until we get in the weeds and start living it.”

For now, the ruling grants schools the option to allow all spring sport athletes to return to school and make up the year of eligibility they otherwise would have lost.

Consequently, UT baseball coach David Pierce has the option of bringing back his four seniors for another year in 2021 if they wish to return. Roster limits will not be capped for one year only, so catcher DJ Petrinsky, outfielders Duke Ellis and Austin Todd and reliever Donny Diaz could suit up again next spring and not affect the absurdly low scholarship limit of 11.7 for baseball stretched over a 35-man roster. 

Baseball players have to be given a minimum of one-quarter of a full, so unscrupulous coaches can’t bring in players in the fall for a price of a history book and cut them in December if they don’t make the cut.

Texas’ John Fields had two incoming recruits for his men’s golf team in a talented duo from the usual Texas pipeline of Highland Park in Dallas. So he can honor the signings of Scott Roden and Randall Fojtasek and not have them count against his 4.5 total allotment and still have Spencer Soosman and two other seniors return as well.

Same goes for Ryan Murphy, who has already signed top prospects Bentley Cotton of Westlake, Macy Fox of Lake Travis and Ashley Park of Irvine, Calif. They can reinforce what was already the nation’s No. 1-ranked women’s golf team and add to depth behind current junior Kaitlyn Papp and freshman Sophie Guo although senior Emilee Hoffman has already announced she plans to turn pro.

Bianca and Anna Turati, the senior twins for Howard Joffe’s women’s tennis team who left New York City on Tuesday morning bound for home in Barzano, Italy, will have some difficult choices to make now as well. But at least they have options.

This landmark ruling obviously comes with a price tag, steeper for some than others. 

Del Conte has asked his head coaches to canvass their senior athletes about their intentions, so they and the school can make plans.

“We’ll know more down the road, probably in the next two weeks,” Del Conte said. “Lots of seniors have already decided to graduate. Some may have a job already or plan to go to grad school. It’s fluid.”

Except the NCAA’s ruling, of course. That is concrete, as hard a decision as it was.

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