March 31--TUSCALOOSA -- The widespread shutdown of collegiate and professional sports in the U.S. three weeks ago left many senior student-athletes reeling and without any sense of control over their own careers.
In Tuscaloosa, there were plenty of tears shed March 13 after the Alabama softball team gathered in center field of Rhoads Stadium for an impromptu team photo after the NCAA and SEC suspended or canceled all athletic activities through the end of the 2019-20 academic calendar due to the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic sweeping the globe.
A little more than two weeks later, Crimson Tide student-athletes regained some semblance of authority when the NCAA Division I Council voted Monday to approve a waiver process that allows schools to provide all spring sport student-athletes an additional year of eligibility in 2021 to replace the one lost this year. The council also provided schools relaxed financial aid and roster limitations to allow teams to carry more athletes in 2021 to account for incoming signees and any potential returning seniors.
Division I institutions also have the financial flexibility to match or lower the scholarship aid (to as low as zero) for any returning senior student-athletes that were to exhaust their college eligibility in 2020, and allowed for schools to utilize the NCAA's Student Assistance Fund to cover scholarships for student-athletes that take advantage of the added year of eligibility.
"The Council's decision gives individual schools the flexibility to make decisions at a campus level," Penn athletic director and council chair M. Grace Calhoun said in a statement released Monday night. "The Board of Governors encouraged conferences and schools to take action in the best interest of student-athletes and their communities, and now schools have the opportunity to do that."
Alabama has 67 total senior or graduate senior student-athletes listed on its spring sports rosters that would qualify for the NCAA waiver, including a combined 25 between its men's and women's track and field/cross country team. There are also 17 seniors on the rowing team, a combined seven seniors on the men's and women's tennis teams and one apiece on the men's and women's golf teams in Jake DeZoort and Kenzie Wright, respectively.
Also among the list are nine baseball players -- catcher Johnny Hawk, outfielder Walker McCleney, infielder Kolby Robinson, utilities Brett Auerbach and Justin King, and pitchers Casey Cobb, Dylan Oliver, William Freeman and Kyle Cameron -- and seven softball players -- infielders Taylor Clark, Bailey Hemphill, Claire Jenkins; outfielders Elissa Brown and Alexis Mack; and pitchers Sarah Cornell and Krystal Goodman.
Longtime Alabama softball coach Patrick Murphy said he expects all seven of his seniors back after each expressed interest in taking advantage of the waiver and returning in 2021.
"As of right now, all seven (seniors) said, 'yes' they'd like to come back," Murphy said last week.
Mack, who sat out the 2018 season at Oregon in order to be eligible to play her final season at Alabama as a grad transfer in 2020, was among several who expressed their excitement over social media Monday night, tweeting "SEE YOU IN 2021" along with a series of pictures of her playing last season.
Things are likely a little more complicated for third-year Crimson Tide baseball coach Brad Bohannon and his nine seniors, even with NCAA expanding roster limitations -- mostly because Bohannon has no interest in fielding a team of more than 40 players on it.
"I've never been a guy that liked a big roster; I can't imagine having more than 40 kids in fall camp," Bohannon told the Tuscaloosa News. "That's not the way I like to run our program."
And with the 10 incoming 2020 signees added to the expected 25 returning underclassmen (freshmen, sophomores, and juniors), Alabama would already be at the 35-member roster limit. Should Bohannon self-impose a roster limit of 40 for the 2021 season, it'd likely mean only five of last year's nine seniors would be able to return for 2021, regardless of the expected scholarship allowances. That should also help limit any significant financial burden on the Crimson Tide, which spent more than $700,000 on baseball student aid in the 2018-19 fiscal year. And while it's unclear what portion of that went to Alabama's nine seniors, there would still be some added financial ramifications.
"When you sign kids in November, you're signing them to the money your seniors and the kids you expect to be drafted (are afforded), so you (promise) that money in the Fall on high school kids ... (but) if those seniors and juniors all come back the math just doesn't work for any school in the country," Bohannon said last week. "There's going to have to be something that's done (because) allowing seniors to come back or providing every player on your team an additional year of eligibility is going to create some very unique roster and scholarship issues that'll take 3-4 years to work through, not just one year."
With a majority of the Tide's regular contributors represented by underclassmen, including 14 of its 17 starts on the mound coming from freshmen and sophomores, only three of the 2020 seniors started games last season -- Auerbach (17), Robinson (14) and Freeman (2) -- with just one other (McCleney) appearing in more than 10 games off the bench.
There are other complications as well that could impact how many actually take advantage of the added year of eligibility, including the reality that some seniors have already graduated or are in line to graduate later this year and simply may not want or can't afford to pay for another year in school. Others may have already lined up post-graduate employment opportunities that can't be turned down. Add that to the fact that giving schools flexibility to potentially reduce the previously agreed-upon financial aid arraignment for any returning seniors could also force those same student-athletes into some very difficult decisions about whether to return or not.
Also complicating matters is the financial uncertainty facing many colleges after last week's announcement the NCAA will only distribute $225 million to its Division I conferences and schools in the next fiscal year, a significant drop from the $600 million it was originally budgeted to disperse. A recent USA Today report indicated most public Division I athletic departments generally received between 2-5 percent of their total operating revenue from NCAA distributions, according to 2019 fiscal reports compiled by USA Today.
And while major Power 5 programs like Alabama might have the financial security to bring back its multitude of seniors in 2021, it would nevertheless require a considerable financial commitment that many smaller schools might not have, forcing them to make hard decisions.
For reference, Alabama spent a little less than $18.2 million on athletic student aid in the 2018-19 fiscal year, including roughly $6 million on athletes who play spring sports -- baseball ($737,859), softball ($653,416), men's and women's golf ($535,577), rowing ($1.1 million), men's and women's tennis ($777,259) and track and field/cross country ($2.15 million).
What those figures will look like in the 2020-21 fiscal year is yet to be seen, but the one certainty of Monday's NCAA decision on eligibility relief is that it affords thousands of Division I seniors the option to leave school on their own terms next year.
Here's a list of the 67 Alabama senior spring sports student-athletes broken down by sport:
Baseball (9)-- Brett Auerbach, Casey Cobb, Johnny Hawk, Walker McCleney, Kolby Robinson, Dylan Oliver, William Freeman, Justin King, and Kyle Cameron
Softball (7) -- Elissa Brown, Taylor Clark, Sarah Cornell, Bailey Hemphill, Claire Jenkins, Krystal Goodman, Alexis Mack
M/W Golf (2) -- men: Jake DeZoort; women: Kenzie Wright
Rowing (17) -- Elle Anderson, Sydney Boles, Peyton Cowell, Gaby Crawford, Olivia DeGroot, Kylie Diffley, Samantha Gafford, Sarah Giuliani, Keilani Hamann, Hailey Higgins, Gabrielle Krieger, Carley McCoin, Arielle Schafer, Rebekah Stewart, Ariana Sweany, Katie Toth and Makena Clark.
M/W Tennis (7) -- men: Alexey Nesterov, Edson Ortiz, Zhe Zhou; women: Alba Cortina Pou, Luca Fabian, Jacqueline Pelletier, Ann Selim
M/W Track & Field (25) -- men: Henry Barrett, J.P. Brinyark, Robert Dunning, Alize Ford, Stephan Holcombe, Oliver Rigg, Michael Wiggins, Brad Cheek, Gilbert Kigen, and Gincent Kiprop; women: D'Jai Baker, Kristoni Barnes, Caroline Brooks, Rebecca Buteau, Symone Darius, Esther Gitahi, Hannah Howard, Abigail Kwarteng, Natassha McDonald, Takyera Roberson, Avery Stuchell, Brittany Tolson, Haley Wright, Katie Funcheon, and Leah Hanle
Alex Byington is the Montgomery Advertiser's Alabama beat reporter. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @_AlexByington.
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