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NCAA grants extra season of eligibility to spring sports

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The decision did not include winter sports.

Texas baseball

Following a weekend of uncertainty as athletics directors around the country frantically made best guesses about revenue projections for the next year, the NCAA Division I Council voted on Monday to extend eligibility for student-athletes impacted by the coronavirus pandemic by allowing schools to authorize an extra year of competition and an extension of eligibility.

Participants in winter sports are not eligible.

The compromise avoided the worst-case scenario for student-athletes — losing that season of eligibility as a result of the canceled spring season — and avoided the worst-case scenario for schools — becoming committed to financial aid that some may not be able to afford with the 2020 football season increasingly viewed as less than guaranteed.

“The Council’s decision gives individual schools the flexibility to make decisions at a campus level,” said Penn athletics director M. Grace Calhoun, the Council chair. “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.”

Scholarship limits were adjusted to allow student-athletes in their final season of eligibility to return for another season if they decide to remain on campus. In addition, schools can self-apply waivers for the restoration of eligibility lost due to the canceled spring season.

The vote also doesn’t require schools to provide the same level of aid provided this year — student-athletes could return in some instances with decreased aid or no aid at all. The NCAA Student Assistance Fund is available for returning seniors as another resource to help athletic departments facing declining revenues as a result of the pandemic.

On the Forty Acres, the decisions will have the greatest impact on the Texas softball program, which ended the shortened season ranked No. 1 in the final Softball America poll while led by a handful of seniors, including two-way star Miranda Elish, who has already announced her decision to return for another season. With a group that had a chance to rank as the best team in Longhorns softball history this year, Texas will now receive an opportunity to capitalize on that potential next season if all the seniors opt to return.

What happens with the baseball program is more difficult to ascertain at this time. Seniors like Duke Ellis and Austin Todd will be hurt by an MLB Draft that could range from five to 10 rounds this year and a decreased bonus pool that will no longer allow organizations to carry over unused draft bonuses to spend on undrafted free agents.

However, any seniors who do decide to return won’t count against the baseball scholarship limit.

With age concerns playing such a large factor in baseball evaluations, juniors and seniors will have more difficult choices regarding playing professionally for less money or potentially hurting their long-term trajectory by returning to school for another year.

And for younger players with bright professional futures, like freshman left-hander Pete Hansen or freshman shortstop Trey Faltine, Texas will almost certainly simply end up losing most of a season of eligibility if those players sign after their third season on campus when the bonus pool expands again.

The expectation, however, is that more high school prospects will opt for college and more juniors will return for another season. Since the Horns have such a highly-rated recruiting class and juniors like pitchers Bryce Elder and Kamron Fields, as well as junior-college transfers like infielders Murphy Stehly and Cam Williams, the impact could be a net positive for head coach David Pierce and the 2021 Longhorns.

From the wide-angle standpoint, Texas benefits from having a limited number of varsity sports — the pool of players who could return for another year in 2021 is smaller than most programs — but revenue considerations still matter and shed further light on why athletics director Chris Del Conte opted against paying the $10.5 million buyout for men’s basketball coach Shaka Smart.