Newton’s third law of motion states that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Similarly, the NCAA law of emotion states that every action elicits strong reaction.
Case in point: the NCAA Division I Council’s decision to grant every spring sports athlete an extra year of eligibility to make up for having lost this season to the coronavirus pandemic.
Outwardly, the decision is a good-hearted slam dunk. Give crestfallen athletes, especially seniors, another chance to compete. Inwardly, however, many schools worry how such a feel-good display of fairness will slam them financially.
The concern is especially evident at the mid-major level, where overall football revenue, which funds nearly every other sport, is a fraction of what the Power Five conferences receive from TV, merchandising and attendance.
Mid-American Conference attendance averaged 15,530 in 2019, compared to 57,916 for the Power Fives as a whole. The little guys eat crumbs from the tables of the kings, but with the NCAA eligibility ruling those crumbs have become even smaller.
"Clearly, we have fewer reserves than at the upper end of FBS," MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said. "It’s not like we have additional funding to throw at this. Institutions have decisions to make and students have decisions to make."
That’s where it gets tricky. The NCAA Council is allowing each school to decide how to handle granting the extra year, whether scholarships will be extended or athletes will need to support themselves financially. Or neither. Practically, it helps schools that most spring sports athletes receive only partial scholarships; imagine if the virus had wiped out fall sports and a dozen or more senior football players on full scholarships decided to return for their extra season.
Still, mid-majors like the MAC also run on tighter budgets, so any senior athlete who opts to return is a potential money drain. But only potential, because schools can follow the lead of Wisconsin and opt to send current seniors on their way without offering another year of eligibility.
The other extreme is to fund seniors at something at or close to their current scholarship amount. That is the plan at Ohio State, which has 31 of 70 seniors from 12 spring sports choosing to return. (Note: Athletes must enroll for the entire school year, not just for spring semester.) The 14.3 scholarships cost $630,000, not including meals and expenses. Ohio State athletics tallied $210 million in revenue last year, plus reserves from lucrative TV deals. Compare that to Ohio University, whose five athletes who chose to return will require less than a quarter of what OSU will pay in scholarships. But Ohio University’s athletic revenue is less than $40 million.
"For lower-resourced schools, I imagine it’s even more of a challenge," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said.
Ohio athletic director Julie Cromer does not argue that point, but confirmed that most MAC athletic departments receive more institutional support than Power Five schools and are partially funded by student fees, so there is some trade-off between cutting seniors loose and collecting money off their enrollment and tuition. Even Ohio State stands to make money from the 30 athletes who will return.
"What we are in the process of doing is examining any unused aid first, then looking across all sports to determine if we can fit some scholarship aid within it," Cromer said.
Toledo is taking a slightly different approach.
"What we’re doing is if the student wants to come back for that additional year that’s fine, but it’s up to that particular sport to live within its current NCAA scholarship limit, whether student-athletes return or not," Toledo athletic director Mike O’Brien said.
Most athletic directors are not stingy Grinches. They think the NCAA did right by granting springs sports athletes another year of eligibility. But the NCAA’s action is causing angst as well.
"I would say on this issue an awful lot of people who spoke about moving into this cautiously were (non-Power Five) schools, because they realize we absolutely have no idea what the future looks like," Steinbrecher said. "And so much funding depends on how the football season comes off."
That’s another way of saying the Ohio States and Clemsons of this world need football to return. But the little guys may need it even more.