Vaibhav Sharma

Three weeks after COVID-19 began to force the abrupt cancellation of collegiate athletics around the country, the NCAA Division I Council voted on Monday to grant all spring athletes another season of eligibility.

The pandemic has forced students off university campuses and canceled games and practices for college athletes. On March 12, the NCAA announced that it would cancel its remaining winter and spring championships, while the Ivy League had already decided to end all spring athletics a day earlier. Questions around eligibility quickly followed the decisions, and Monday’s vote offered clarity, extending an extra season of competition to spring athletes whose seasons had just begun but declining to renew eligibility for some winter-sport athletes who missed the postseason.

“I think every spring sport athlete in Division I had been anticipating the news ever since their season was cancelled,” Yale baseball infielder Dai Dai Otaka ’20 wrote in an email to the News. “Luckily for us, they agreed to give spring sport athletes another year of eligibility … I think many students were pumped about it, but it does bring up some questions about roster sizes, scholarship funding, et cetera.”

In the Ivy League, which typically restricts athletes’ eligibility to their first four years of actual undergraduate enrollment, the consequences are especially complicated.

While the rest of the NCAA allows student-athletes to claim their four seasons of eligibility within a five-year timeline of matriculation, the Ivy League requires students to use their eligibility within their first four years of enrollment, thereby not allowing medical redshirts. As a result, when some Ancient Eight athletes suffer significant injuries that would allow them to redshirt, they often transfer to other conferences to use their final year of eligibility as graduate students.

With 299 DI baseball teams scattered across the nation, Otaka likely has several options for his future destination. After a conversation with Yale head coach John Stuper Tuesday afternoon, he told the News that he would enter the transfer portal as a graduate transfer.

Dai Dai Otaka ’20 will enter the transfer portal. (muscosportsphotos.com)

Other athletes are intent on finishing their careers at Yale. Heavyweight crew captain Thomas Digby ’20 said no senior on the team is considering entering the portal to row as a graduate transfer in another conference. Of the 16 in his Class of 2020, he said, six are weighing another year at Yale. Even with the NCAA council’s Monday vote, doing so will only be possible if the Ivy League and Yale grant them eligibility.

“There’s still a few more steps,” Digby said. “The Ivy League is yet to rule … I think the NCAA ruling, it’s all hopeful, and we’re heading in the right direction. But it’s by no means a box check yet.”

Some Ancient Eight athletes, like senior Princeton lacrosse attackman Michael Sowers, have acted preemptively in order to ensure another year of competition. The Athletic reported that Sowers withdrew from Princeton last Friday, the last day he could receive a 50 percent refund on tuition, in order to delay his final undergraduate semester until spring 2021, ensuring another season of play for the Tigers.

As of Monday night, the Ivy League had not yet made a decision about how eligibility will work in light of the DI council vote.

“The Ivy League supported the NCAA proposal to provide relief for all student-athletes whose spring seasons were canceled due to COVID-19,” Ivy League Associate Executive Director Matt Panto wrote in a statement to the News. “The League is considering the implications of this decision in order to appropriately counsel student-athletes currently evaluating their options.”

In its statement, the Division I Council announced that baseball teams will have an increased roster size to account for the changes, as baseball is the only sport with a hard cap on the number of players.

The council is also granting a number of exceptions to rigid scholarship and financial aid rules. Teams can now increase the number of players on scholarship in an effort to account for the athletes choosing to exercise their extra year of eligibility. The NCAA also relaxed their rules on athletic scholarships (which Ivy League schools do not grant,) giving schools access to the NCAA Student Assistance Fund as financial uncertainty looms over universities’ endowments.

“The Ivy League is yet to rule … I think the NCAA ruling, it’s all hopeful, and we’re heading in the right direction. But it’s by no means a box check yet.”

Heavyweight crew captain Thomas Digby ’20

The NCAA has also given freedom to individual universities in adjusting to the new policy. NCAA D1 Council Chair and Penn Athletic Director M. Grace Calhoun touted the “flexibility” each school will have in implementing the rule changes “at a campus level.”

“Yale University and the Ivy League were very much in favor of the NCAA decision to provide relief for spring sport student-athletes,” Yale Director of Athletics Vicky Chun said. “We have been working closely with the Ivy League as we will now consider the implications of this decision. Our administration and compliance office will continue to work closely with the NCAA, Ivy League and Yale to further guide our student-athletes during these unprecedented times.”

Digby said he heard that Yale coaches are pressuring the University to approve an extra year of eligibility for spring athletes. If the Ivy League allows it, he believes Yale will, too.

The postponement of the 2020 Summer Olympics also affects Digby’s decision. With the event pushed back to 2021, he is considering spending next year training for a potential spot at the Games. But for now, he is staying busy at home in England, attending online classes and training on an ergometer he keeps in a shed at home.

Yale women’s lacrosse completed six games before its season ended. Reese Stadium will be silent for the rest of this spring. (muscosportsphotos.com)

A month ago, he expected to be in New Haven this week, attending real classes and training for a spring season that would have just begun. What would have concluded his collegiate rowing career — Yale’s annual trip to Gales Ferry, Conn. for May training in advance of the Yale–Harvard race — still lurks on his mind.

“It’s a special time each year, but I’ve seen it being an incredibly special time for the seniors because it’s their moment to savor, it’s their time to reflect on what Yale has given them and their time to focus on beating Harvard one last time,” Digby said. “Being there with a smile on their face, with the people they put all this work in with for the last four years. That’s what we’re missing out on.

“I haven’t really come to terms with it yet. Because it feels like I’ve just gone home, and we’re gonna come back, but I actually realistically could not be going back, which is a crazy thought.”

William McCormack | william.mccormack@yale.edu

Nader Granmayeh | nader.granmayeh@yale.edu