Stay or go? Local NCAA senior athletes ponder competing an extra year

Spring senior athletes are faced with a decision to return for another season, or jump into their career
WSU track and field athlete Ray Wells Jr.
Courtesy: Howard Lao Photography via WSU Athletics

Spring is in the air, and so are a million what-ifs.

The year 2020 is here to provide a lifetime supply of what-ifs that nobody wants. Especially for college athletes.

The NCAA canceled the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, and nearly the entire spring season because of the coronavirus pandemic. But on March 30th, they did the right thing by granting spring student-athletes an extra year of eligibility.

But the NCAA usually gives us something to get a little heated over. When it comes to paying for the extra year of scholarships all the student-athletes who decide to take them up on the extra year, the association told each university, ‘the pleasure is yours.’

“In a nod to the financial uncertainty faced by higher education, the Council vote also provided schools with the flexibility to give students the opportunity to return for 2020-21 without requiring that athletics aid be provided at the same level awarded for 2019-20.” – NCAA press release

Provide, flexibility, opportunity. All uplifting words. The ones in between make it a very stressful sentence for athletic departments, Power-5 and mid-major alike. The athletes who want to finish their career deserve the same scholarship they’re currently receiving. But when the NCAA gave “flexibility” to these schools to make that decision, they also handed off the blame if institutions can’t make it work financially.

That decision weighs heavily on athletic budgets, and on the hearts of senior athletes who may not be guaranteed scholarship next year.

That’s why we reached out to over 70 student-athletes at local universities to find out what they’re thinking. One Washington State track athlete admits “it’s a really emotional time because you have to let it all go, and it feels out of your control.”

In a USA Today article, Eastern Washington University athletic director Lynn Hickey asked, “How do we come up with the funds for the extra scholarships that we weren’t counting on? Quite honestly, I don’t know how we would pay for it. I’m being very honest and transparent. I don’t know.”

WSU announced this week that many of their seniors were interested in returning, and predicted “an additional $300,000 in athletic grant-in-aid costs for FY21.” We’ll get into what they’re doing to balance that cost later.

Before the decision by the NCAA to extend athlete’s eligibility clock, these major decisions created major slashes in revenue for the association:

  • March 12, 2020: NCAA President Mark Emmert cancels men’s and women’s basketball tournament (estimated revenue loss of $800 million)
  • March 27, 2020: NCAA announces a $375 million cut in funding for Division I programs (schools expected $600 million, will receive $225 million)

So, in the same year they’re getting paid significantly less, these institutions will be asked to support athletes that want another year.

Should they stay or should they go? Polling senior student-athletes

“I’m just so heartbroken, I don’t know what to do. Putting my life on hold for another year just feels so scary.”

Those words came from a University of Washington athlete who competes on one of this state’s most historically successful sports: women’s rowing. It’s likely five out of their six seniors will return for another year.

We’ve talked NCAA, we’ve talked money, but the focus of this article is the seniors. This is the kind of decision almost every single one of them face right now. Come back for another year to close out their career, or jump into the real world.

Their lives and identities are entwined with their sport and school. Years of practice, 5 a.m. wake up calls for conditioning or weightlifting, countless hours of travel steered them into their grand finale. Their last season to compete, their senior year. We all know what happened next.

“I was really lost. All of the sudden I didn’t have academics or athletics, I was just sitting in Seattle not knowing what to do.”

When the news of an extra year of eligibility was granted, we reached out to over 70 spring athletes at Washington State, Gonzaga, Eastern Washington, the University of Idaho, and the University of Washington. I asked track and field athletes, baseball, softball, golf and tennis players, along with UW women’s rowing whether they’d come back for another season. We promised anonymity.

Some schools have told seniors their scholarships are guaranteed    next year, others haven’t.

What I found the most interesting was how quickly certain schools told their seniors their scholarships would be guaranteed if they decided to return. Athletes from just two out of five universities could confirm they would have that support as of April 11. As you can imagine, student-athletes competing for the wealthier schools were told within the week of the news. Especially for sports like baseball and softball.

Around the country, schools like the University of Wisconsin and Maine have both made it public they will not provide financial assistance for seniors that want to return, but they will still honor the extra year of eligibility. Ivy League schools will not allow spring sport athletes to compete for an additional year, because they’ve never allowed graduates to play sports.

Baseball

Two baseball players from one school we polled said their return to college depends on the MLB draft, how many rounds there are, and if they are chosen. If they’re not chosen, they all plan on returning for another season. As of April 11, none of those three players had heard from their athletic department about whether they’d get financial assistance.

One player from a different university confirmed he would come back for another season, saying, “Money is a factor, though I have enough trust in our school and coaches to make the right decision in regards to scholarships.”

The very next day, he received a call from his coach guaranteeing a scholarship in 2021 if he chose to return. He and at least three other teammates plan on returning to that university, not considering the draft.

Track & Field 

That was much less common for track athletes, where definitive answers were hard to come by no matter the school. Receiving scholarship made a huge difference. Nearly 85% of the track athletes we talked to said their decision depends on whether they’ll get the same financial assistance or not.

As of April 11, very few track athletes had been told whether they’d be given scholarship for 2020-21.

Eastern Washington has 22 seniors on their roster, and Washington State has 28. We received 13 responses from EWU, and 14 from WSU. Both schools skewed toward “yes,” with 67% of Cougs saying they’d return, and 62% of Eagle seniors.

The most common reason for not returning involved the future they already mapped out after graduating. Acceptance into a graduate program, or lining up a job in their field is something that should be joyful and exciting. But now, taking that opportunity means saying no to another year to race, to win, or to spend time with teammates.

Several athletes also said a fifth, and in some cases, sixth year of college athletics was just too much to commit to.

For others, the thought of unfinished business is too daunting. One senior on EWU’s track team said, “I want to finish what I started. I don’t want to look back in 20 years and wonder ‘What if I competed?'”

What if?

But what if that puts them in more student loan debt? There are few track athletes on one team who receive a full-ride, with a majority of them on partial scholarship.

Softball

The only softball team at a Division I university in Washington (and one of the most successful in the country) is not currently speaking to the media, but I was told that at least half of the seniors on the team had already committed to return in 2021.

Golf/Tennis

Two seniors in these sports both confirmed they would not be returning for an extra season. One cited a graduate assistant job next season, the other just preferred to get started in their career.

Schools will get some help, and athletic department staff are stepping up

The NCAA mentioned some aid will be available in their March 30 press release.

“Schools also will have the ability to use the NCAA’s Student Assistance Fund to pay for scholarships for students who take advantage of the additional eligibility flexibility in 2020-21.”

Never heard of the NCAA’s SAF? You’re not alone. It’s a little-known fund used for ‘creating endowments that directly support students, to launch financial literacy and mental health programs, or to expand academic advising and tutoring resources.’

Athletic staffs like Washington State are also stepping up to help cut costs for their departments, and lighten the financial burden of providing extra scholarship. WSU President Kirk Schulz, athletic director Pat Chun, football coach Nick Rolovich, basketball coach Kyle Smith all volunteered to take a 5% salary reduction through the 2021 academic year. Every single coach is foregoing bonuses/incentives for the same time period.

The verdict

You can’t envy the position the NCAA was put in with the decisions they had to make. Every professional sports league had to do the same, canceling or postponing their seasons. There is no way to make everyone happy in this situation, safety and health surged to the top of everyone’s priority list.

The verdict is there is no verdict. Some student-athletes were confident in their decision to return for another season, especially if it allowed them to finish a master’s program or compete in an extra outdoor track season. Others are torn between an incredible job opportunity, and risking major regret or ‘fear of missing out’ if they don’t compete again.

In the responses we got from spring athletes, it was about a 60/40 split in favor of returning for a senior season. Unfortunately, nearly half of all those who said “yes” were dependent on receiving the same scholarship they had this year.

The year that will go down as one giant question mark, ending a sentence of a thousand what-ifs.

Athletes are conditioned to believe they can avoid those what-ifs in sports if they out-train, out-prepare and outwork everyone in their way. Not this time.

As we get closer to summer, time is ticking on a decision that will change the course of their lives. They’ll have to choose which “what-ifs” they’re content with leaving open.

But American psychologist J. Martin Kohe once made great point, “The greatest power a person possesses is the power to choose.” 

In a time where no one has much control, maybe just having a choice is reason enough to be grateful.