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Spring-Sport Athletes Have Received an Extra Year of Eligibility. What Does it Mean for UCF Baseball?

It’s great news for many players, but the ramifications of this decision are numerous and also nebulous

Photo: Brian Murphy

On the surface, Monday’s decision by the NCAA Division 1 Council to give an extra year of eligibilty to every spring-sport athlete — at UCF, that means all baseball, softball, golf, tennis, rowing, and track and field participants — was a principled, just gesture.

These athletes played only some of their regular-season schedule (or in the case of UCF’s track and field squad, none of it). In contrast, winter-sport athletes such as basketball players, who were not granted an extra year, had completed their regular season, and most conferences had either finished or were in the middle of their conference tournament when everything was shut down.

UCF AD Danny White signaled this week that the fight to get eligibility relief for winter-sports athletes isn’t over. I understand his zeal to support his student-athletes, but many D1 basketball teams had already seen their season end in a fair manner before the cancellations began. There’s no way that the Council will grant those players another season or make an exception for those, like American Atheltic Conference players, who didn’t have a postseason opportunity. At least with spring athletes, the playing field was level.

But just because these athletes get a rightful do-over, no one can act like a pollyanna with this decision. There is plenty of good here, but also some detriments and still a lot that we don’t know. I’ll cover all of these topics as it pertains to UCF Knights baseball because, well, that’s what I know best. Anyway, here is what you need to know from Monday’s decision:

The Basics

  • All players are granted another year of eligibility
  • All seniors who return will not be counted among each team’s 35-man roster maximum. Thus, a team with six returning seniors could ultimately field a 41-man roster.
  • Seniors can receive an amount of financial aid ranging anywhere from zero to what they received during the 2020 season. Scholarships for returning seniors won’t count against each team’s limit of 11.7 scholarships. The amount of aid given to each senior will be decided by each university. So, if a returning senior was on a 30% scholarship in 2020, they could receive up to 30% in 2021, but each school is allowed to give each of those players less aid or none at all.
  • All other players — freshmen, sophomores and juniors — must receive the same scholarship amount that they held in 2020. Per usual, 27 of those 35 players must be on scholarship and each must receive at least 25% of a scholarship.

Whom Does This Help?

  • I think top-line takeaway is obvious: This helps all of those seniors who had lost their final season in college baseball. UCF had four seniors on the 2020 roster: Jordan Rathbone, Jaylyn Whitehead, Chad Luensmann and Zack Helsel. They get another chance to play.
  • This also helps the juniors and other draft-eligible players who may have had their sights set on declaring for the pros after this season. Last Friday, MLB and the MLB Players Association agreed on a deal that addressed many issues. Among them was the option to limit the 2020 MLB Draft from 40 rounds to as few as five rounds. While the length of the draft hasn’t been confirmed, it is expected to be somewhere between 5-10 rounds, therby cutting a draft pool that usually contains more than 1,200 players to possibly fewer than 200.
    It’s also worth noting that any player who isn’t drafted and then signs as an undrafted free agent will receive a $20,000 signing bonus. Considering that each draft slot in rounds 6-10 contains a value in the six-figure range, that is a relative pittance if the draft is just five rounds long.
    So, just as one example, let’s discuss junior right-handed pitcher pitcher Jack Sinclair. He is someone I could see landing in that 6-10-round range with the dominance he displayed this season. For what it’s worth: D1Baseball considers both Sinclair and junior outfielder Dalton Wingo to be among college baseball’s 250 best MLB Draft prospects.
    If the 2020 draft is just five rounds and if the extra eligibility had not been granted, Sinclair would have had to decide between two options: Take the $20,000 now as a likely UDFA or return for his senior season and hope he can pick up where he left off, knowing that he has no negotiating leverage once his senior season is over. Even great college baseball seniors don’t receive much money when they are drafted because teams know they have no other options.
    But with an extra year, Sinclair can come back to school, and if he repeats his 2020 performance, he will have more negotiating power, knowing that he can come back to school if he and the team that drafts him can’t come to agreement. The 2021 MLB Draft will be at least 20 rounds long.
  • The sport as a whole is boosted because these recent decisions — a large reduction in MLB Draft picks combined with an extra year for every existing college player — will create a talent surplus. Those returning seniors will be joined by a glut of high schoolers going to college, and JUCO transfers, who will also get an extra year of eligibility. This should make all fans of college baseball pleased. Yet, understandably, there are a couple of subsets of people who will be negatively affected.

Whom does this hurt?

  • Most evidently, incoming freshmen. UCF has an eight-player class set to come aboard for the 2021 season. Now there is bound to be more competition for playing time that they or head coach Greg Lovelady could have ever imagined when they committed. They could still show up and play their way onto the field, much in the way that freshmen such as Pablo Ruiz, Matt Archer and Hunter Patteson did this year. But you could also argue that UCF, which had 12 freshman on its roster, needed those new faces to play, no matter what. This logjam will probably lead to many 2021 newcomers falling prey to the numbers game.
  • While head coaches around the nation must be pleased for their players, this decision is going to leave those coaches and their universities with some really tough choices. Although eligibility is guaranteed, a roster spot or aid for these returning seniors is not. It’s inevitable that some of them will be given a double whammy of bad news: Their existing team has nowhere to play them and their school has decided to not extend any scholarship money their way. This is already happening:

As such, some players will be more or less told to move on. There are going to be some extremely uncomfortable discussions among players and coaches this summer.

What has yet to be answered?

A lot. There is so much we don’t know yet. Speaking strictly from a UCF point of view, here’s what you should wondering:

  • Will UCF extend any financial aid to its seniors? I know this is rather hollow to talk about given our current global climate, but UCF’s athletic department, like almost any other across the country, is having to deal with some financial shortfalls right now. And matters will get worse if the football season has to be postponed indefinitely, something we may know within the next few months. If it comes to that, corners will have to be cut, and that might mean there is no extra money for UCF to give to its returning seniors. UCF, because of its size and national prominence, is in a better position than many schools. But if they can’t come up with any extra aid for those seniors, how will those players choose to move forward?
  • Even with some aid, will the seniors actually take advantage of the extra year of eligibility? Each of the Knights’ four seniors from 2020 are redshirt seniors. So, 2021 will be their sixth year in college. A couple of weeks ago, Lovelady said “there are options” for all of those players to return; some of them could start a master’s program. He added that some of those players have already begun obtaining master’s degree and can continue with that program or perhaps prolong it. But he also mentioned that some of those seniors — again, I’m not sure which ones — began interviewing for jobs during the season. Although some financial aid would help, it may not be enough to cover the costs of another school year. Can those seniors afford that cost? Perhaps some of them would take a $20,000 UDFA bonus now to get their pro career started. Or perhaps some will say they have had enough and that after five years, it’s time to move on to another line of work. Whatever the case, I think it’s very possible a senior(s) who is eligible to come back to UCF leaves that extra year on the table.
  • Will there be a no-penalty transfer rule be enacted this summer to help with all of the overloaded rosters? You better get ready for it. We could see free agency in college baseball this summer, leading to a break-neck pace of player movement. The Knights’ roster might look quite different in a few months.
  • What will happen to the freshmen and younger commits? As mentioned earlier, the true freshmen are the group of players who benefit the least from this. If the NCAA allows other players to transfer without any penalty this summer, could we also see them release prospective players from their NLI agreements? That would be even more wild, but not totally unexpected. Another option for freshmen is for them to start their careers at the JUCO level.
  • What happens with graduate transfers? Maybe some seniors decide to keep playing elsewhere. In that case, it sounds like they won’t count against their new team’s 35-man roster limit, but any amount of financial aid extended to that player would count toward the 11.7 scholarship limit.

There are even more issues to tackle, but I’ll leave it here for now. If there is something else you’re wondering about, leave a question in the comments.