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NCAA to grant spring student-athletes an extra year of eligibility—a big deal for Arizona softball

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COLLEGE SOFTBALL: MAR 07 SIUE at Arizona Photo by Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The NCAA Council Coordination Committee announced Friday that it is “appropriate” to grant spring sport student-athletes an extra year of eligibility after their seasons were abruptly cut short by the coronavirus crisis.

The details of such a policy will be finalized “at a later time” so in no way is it official yet.

“The committee recognizes that several issues need to be addressed related to providing an additional season of competition, including financial aid implications,” an NCAA memo said.

Arizona’s spring sports are softball, baseball, beach volleyball, tennis, golf and track and field. This is an especially huge development for senior student-athletes, whose careers would otherwise be over, and Arizona softball, whose six best players are seniors (seven if you include Dejah Mulipola, though she was redshirting anyway).

That said, not every student-athlete is in prime position to use an extra year of eligibility. For instance, Arizona third baseman Malia Martinez was planning to enroll as a PhD student at NAU in the fall, a school that does not have a softball program.

For other seniors, like pitcher Mariah Lopez who is not on track to graduate until the fall, or Jessie Harper who was planning to stay on board as a graduate manager, competing in 2021 makes perfect sense.

However, there are financial implications as well. Division I softball programs are generally allotted 12 scholarships, meaning a student-athlete who decides to use the extra year may have to be willing and able to shoulder a major expense. If Arizona’s seniors return and eight recruits join the program as planned, the Wildcats will have 28 players in 2021.

But having to cram a roster of that magnitude into a dozen scholarships is likely what the NCAA means by the “financial aid implications” of granting spring student-athletes an additional year of eligibility, as many schools will be facing a similar roster crunch.

There is also this statement from the NCAA that makes it sound as if schools will be able to do all sorts of things to make the numbers work: “Conferences and institutions should make decisions and take action in the best interests of their student-athletes and communities without first seeking approval through an interpretation or waiver. For example, institutional discretion should be used to provide appropriate support, benefits, and expenses to student-athletes as adjustments are made to academic and athletics schedules.”

Either way, the NCAA is right to at least give these student-athletes a choice. It allows someone like Harper, who is only 17 home runs away from becoming Arizona’s all-time leader, to finish her career in an appropriate manner, not at the whim of unprecedented health crisis.

The NCAA said it will also discuss whether it will grant winter sport student-athletes—basketball, gymnastics, swimming, etc.— an extra year of eligibility.

“The committee recognizes that student-athletes are making life decisions that will be helped by understanding whether an additional season of competition would be available, and as such, will work in a timely manner to make informed decisions,” a statement said.