NCAA grants extra year of eligibility to fall-sport athletes

The NCAA Board of Directors voted to approve a blanket waiver for all fall-sport athletes on Friday, granting them an extra year of eligibility, even if they decide to participate in sports this season.

The vote came after the Division I Council recommended the NCAA postpone fall championships until the spring and extend eligibility for all fall-sport athletes.

The NCAA released an official press release, detailing the blanket waiver and the move to spring for fall championships. The release also reiterated that any athlete who chooses to sit out the fall season will retain their scholarship. Schools are prohibited from canceling or reducing athletic scholarships or requiring athletes to sign liability waivers related to COVID-19.

All of BYU’s fall sports except for football have been canceled, and the NCAA said in its press release that fall sports will pick up in the spring only if programs and communities are in a safe condition to do so as it pertains to COVID-19.

The additional year of eligibility allows programs across the country, including BYU, to take their time and return to play when it’s safe without worrying about whether or not their athletes will be eligible to return. The decision for BYU sports, with the exception of football, will come down to the West Coast Conference and whether or not it deems conditions safe to return to competition in the spring.

Though the news from the NCAA is meant to be a positive safeguard for athletes and teams in danger, the scholarship and eligibility changes could also create a log jam in the future, as the scholarships that were supposed to go to new signees are still occupied by players who extended their college careers beyond what was originally anticipated.

BYU has several fall sports whose teams could benefit from the extra year of eligibility, in particular those whose fall seasons have been postponed. Women’s soccer has a trio of senior starters — Mikayla Colohan, Josie Guinn Gelalich and Cameron Tucker — who will play whenever the upcoming season begins, and can return for the 2021 season as well, extending the competitive window for a team that reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament in 2019.

The BYU women’s volleyball team celebrates a win over Pacific in 2018. Star middle blockers Kennedy Eschenberg, third from right, and Heather Gneiting, second from right, could reunite in 2021 with the eligibility extension announced Friday by the NCAA. (Claire Gentry)

For BYU women’s volleyball, the announcement means star senior Kennedy Eschenberg could stay at BYU until her middle-blocker partner Heather Gneiting returns from a Latter-day Saint mission just in time to begin the 2021 season. The team made deep runs in the NCAA Tournament in the two seasons Eschenberg and Gneiting played together, including a national semifinal appearance in 2018.

Though the eligibility waiver is especially important for those who had their seasons canceled like women’s soccer and women’s volleyball, it also adds a layer of intrigue to the football season as well. BYU Football currently has eight games on its schedule, though some have yet to be confirmed, and can play as many players as it sees fit in those games without concerns about running out of eligibility.

This season will, for all intents and purposes, be a bonus year for BYU Football. Most major conferences have limited play and travel, and several conferences are not playing football this fall at all. The Cougars have a chance to try out players, schemes and plays against a decent schedule of opponents with less long-term consequences. There will be no fall championship, and players will get another year of eligibility even if they play.

Though it is unlikely, this means that seniors Matt Bushman and Khyiris Tonga, who BYU coaches have praised as standout players during fall camp, could return for another year in 2021 and lead a seasoned BYU team against opponents who haven’t played for a year or more. Every BYU player will have the experience and wisdom of a full season without having to move their collegiate athlete clock.

This could be particularly helpful for the crowded quarterback room, which currently includes three players with starting experience in juniors Zach Wilson and Jaren Hall, and sophomore Baylor Romney. With the extended eligibility, the Cougars can give all three chances to prove themselves and gain experience this season, and still have multiple years with each of them in 2021 and beyond. If Wilson decides to leave after next season, Hall could stick around as a “super senior” and lead the team in 2022, with Romney retaining eligibility through the 2023 season.

Last week The Daily Universe wrote about the unique position BYU Football finds itself in as one of the few schools in the West playing football this fall, and their position just got even more unique with the eligibility announcement.

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