NCAA Auburn CWS

With the NCAA granting eligibility relief for spring sports athletes, Auburn coaches like baseball's Butch Thompson will have decisions to make in managing their rosters. [MATT STAMEY/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS]

AUBURN — Two weeks ago, Auburn athletes from every spring sport were left to grapple with the fact that their college careers had abruptly ended, without their say.

The NCAA had already canceled champions for every winter and spring sport in response to widespread concern over the coronavirus pandemic. So when the SEC announced on March 17 that it was cancelling the remainder of the seasons for baseball, softball, golf, tennis and outdoor track and field, there was no hope of those athletes getting back in uniform.

Now, officially, there is.

The NCAA’s Division I Council voted Monday to grant an extra year of eligibility to all spring-sport athletes who had their seasons cut short due to COVID-19, following through with the recommendation it made March 13. That decision does not extend to athletes in winter sports such as basketball, gymnastics and equestrian, as “all or much of their regular seasons were completed.”

But it does allow 36 senior Auburn athletes to continue their careers next season, should they choose to do so.

How exactly that will work, though, has been left up to each individual school. The NCAA adjusted financial aid rules for next year to allow teams to carry more members on scholarship to account for the mix of incoming freshmen and returning seniors, but is not requiring schools to offer additional financial aid — seniors could receive the same amount they were set to in 2020, nothing, or anywhere in between.

That’s the rule on paper. Let’s use Auburn’s baseball team as an example of what it could look like in practice:

The Tigers played 18 games in 2020 with 37 players listed on their official roster. The limit is 35 players (with 27 active on game days), but two of those players had already declared redshirts due to injury and didn’t count against that limit, which will be eliminated next season (baseball is the only sport where that is the case). Five of those 37 players were seniors, and nine were draft-eligible juniors. The program has already announced 13 signees set to join the program next season.

So, if everyone returns, Auburn will go into 2021 with 50 players on the roster. From a roster-management standpoint, that would be a nightmare, which is why it seems unlikely that will happen.

There are two major factors to consider when it comes to returning players. First, do seniors Conor Davis, Rankin Woley, Matt Scheffler, Chase Hall and Ryan Watson want to return? Some or all could decide to do so, but none likely planned on a fifth year in college — they may choose to move on to professional playing opportunities or careers in the workforce, rather than spend an extra year taking classes.

Second, what kind of professional opportunities are out there? Normally, Davis, Woley, Scheffler and juniors such as Tanner Burns, Cody Greenhill, Jack Owen, Bailey Horn, Steven Williams and Judd Ward would all be good bets to have their names called in the pro draft. But that may not be the case this year — the league and players association are currently discussing the idea of shortening this year’s draft from the usual 40 rounds down to somewhere between five and 10 rounds as a cost-saving measure, according to ESPN. Bonuses for undrafted free agents would also be capped.

Burns might be a first-round pick anyway, but there might not be as many opportunities for those who would typically be expected to be drafted in the later rounds. That could motivate more draft-eligible players to return to school, as well as more high school signees to choose college over the minor leagues. And if the veterans come back, there might not be as much playing time available for younger players — Davis, Woley and Scheffler reclaiming their starting roles could have a trickle-down effect on the likes of freshmen Nate LaRue and Ryan Dyal, as well as the incoming class.

There are also financial implications to consider. Going beyond the typical 11.7 scholarships allotted for baseball costs extra money, and all athletic departments may have less of that next year — the NCAA’s planned distribution of $600 million has been reduced to just $225 million following the cancellation of March Madness, and Auburn is losing more than half a spring’s worth of ticket sales. The SEC’s distribution could drop, as well.

Schools will have the ability to use the NCAA’s Student Assistance Fund to pay for scholarships for student-athletes who decide to take advantage of the additional year of eligibility, but it’s not clear how many players that would cover.

More than 11% of the Auburn athletic department’s operating expenses (nearly $16.3 million) during the 2018-19 fiscal year were spent on athletic student aid, with more than $4.1 million going to athletes who play spring sports.

Softball has six seniors (Rachel Cook, Brittany Maresette, Justus Perry, Alyssa Rivera, Tannon Snow and Ashlee Swindle) who could return. Golf has five between the men’s (Reagan Harrell, Graysen Huff and Jovan Rebula) and women’s teams (Elana Hualde Zuniga and Kayley Marschke). Tennis has four seniors between the men’s and women’s teams, and track and field has 16.

Athletes wanted that choice. Sixty Student-Athlete Advisory Committee representatives from across the Power 5 conferences released a joint statement Sunday saying as much. The Division I Council didn’t grant all of their requests (such as also returning eligibility to winter sport athletes and guaranteeing scholarship renewal), but it clearly agreed that spring-sport athletes deserved to get a lost season back.

Now coaches and administrators must figure out how to proceed through yet another unprecedented situation.

“We’re not looking at a fork in the road,” Auburn baseball coach Butch Thompson told Andy Burcham on Tiger Talk last Thursday. “We’re looking at forks in the road.”

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