© 2024
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Keith Strudler: A Mulligan For Spring Sports

If there’s one word to sum up where we all are right now, and assuming it’s a word I’m allowed to say on the air, that word would most likely be “uncertain.” Like, it’s uncertain when this thing might end, or when we can go to a supermarket without wearing hazmat suit. Or it’s uncertain how many people might die and what that number even means. And uncertain whether you’ll still have a job a month from now, or if your 7th grader is actually doing his math. These are but a few of the uncertainties that keep everyone awake all night, which is when I’m assuming they’re booking all the grocery delivery times at Whole Foods. But I digress.

So a small group of college seniors just added more uncertainty to what’s already an unsettling period. That group is college athletes who play a spring sport, which includes baseball, softball, lacrosse, outdoor track and field, crew, golf, and beach volleyball. None of those sports were able to play their play their 2020 seasons, which may seem like a relatively small asterisk in the larger footnote of American higher education. That said, for all the athletes who spent the entire year preparing their competitive seasons, it literally ended before it began, which is different than winter sports like hockey and basketball that had their endings cut short, including of course March Madness, which for the record would hold the Final Four this weekend. And contrary to much of the rest of higher education, a track and field season can’t be rescheduled on a Zoom call. Although when I was in college, Cornell held a fax swim meet with Princeton, which says something about how old I am.

To try and make the best of a bad situation, the NCAA has just announced that it would extend an extra year of eligibility to student athletes who play these spring sports. Meaning, if you’re a graduating senior that plays softball, you can return for another year of college sports and this year doesn’t count against the four you’re allowed to play in college. Which technically means that all the athletes who lost their senior year of, say, lacrosse, can come back and do it again next spring. And let’s leave aside any worst-case scenarios about quarantines a full year from now.

Of course, the devil is always in the details. For example, Division I universities can keep fifth year seniors on scholarship without it counting against the NCAA mandated maximum. But how many schools can even afford that right now, especially given the budget crisis engrossing pretty much every American university? And how many students will want to hang around for another year of school – and pay for most of it as well – when they could graduate with their peers and get on with life, just so they can play another season? And remember, there’s no real guarantee in sports, which means you could stick around and then tear your Achilles and the whole thing is over anyway. So the risk/reward ratio is pretty severe. Then again, who knows what kind of job market graduates are about to jump into. So maybe an extra year of school isn’t the worst thing.

Regardless, the entire discussion, one that might seem fairly trivial to those who don’t play college sports, is a reminder of the deep personal meaning of being a college athlete. In the end, I’m guessing relatively few athletes will stick around for another season unless they already had plans on a graduate degree. But I do know that seniors who are leaving without their last chance at the comradery of competition are feeling a very severe sense of loss. I know this because I felt it the day after my last spring track meet in college, and that was after a normal, full season. I didn’t just feel like competition was ending – I still ran races after college. I felt like I was losing a family, one that spent hours together every day for four years going through a lot of pain so we might accomplish something collectively. That’s what these seniors are losing. And they’re losing it at a moment when pretty much everything else secure is falling apart at the same time. The most important part about being on a college team isn’t about winning – or at least it shouldn’t be. It’s about all the things that happen in the pursuit of that quest. And that is why the NCAA is making this rule change, even if probably few people take up the offer.

Of course, that’s just an educated guess. Because right now, it’s hard to be certain about anything.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

Related Content