It goes without saying that there are far more important issues facing the world at the moment than how the NCAA and pro sports leagues will handle unprecedented situations that will come up in the coming months. Yet since sports are what we do here, that’s the topic at hand.
You may or may not be familiar with Penn State lacrosse player Grant Ament. He’s tormented opponents the last few seasons and appeared primed to move into the top 10 all time in career points this season. After leading the school to its first-ever Final Four a season ago, he had a great chance to guide the Nittany Lions to their first-ever national championship this year.
Obviously that’s not going to happen, as the coronavirus outbreak led to the cancellation of the remainder of the season, but the NCAA (somewhat surprisingly) did the right thing and offered reprieve. Spring sports athletes were granted an additional year of eligibility, meaning someone like Ament could come back next year and try all over again.
There are still details to be sorted out by the NCAA regarding the eligibility issue, but the concept is remarkably fair to these athletes. It is even reasonable that the same courtesy is unlikely to be extended to winter sport athletes, considering many of those seasons were already over and those that were cut short were largely only a loss or two from being over anyway.
The NCAA, which has earned a reputation for not doing the right thing, absolutely seemed to get this one right. They did right for athletes like Ament.
Here’s the thing. Ament has decided not to take advantage of the reprieve the NCAA has offered. Without announcing exactly what was next for him, Ament simply announced that his time in college had come to an end. And that’s understandable. Ament not only will have professional lacrosse opportunities both outdoors and indoors, but he’s also going to have an economics degree from Penn State. He has been planning for years to get on with his life and now wants to see those plans come to fruition (as much as possible given the circumstances).
I’m using Ament to introduce this idea, but let me clear. I don’t know Grant Ament and can’t speak to what he would personally do. His public announcement simply triggered a thought process in my mind about how the NCAA (in concert with professional leagues) should extend the concept of “doing the right thing” in the face of this crisis.
Broadly, they should “do the right thing” by, well, re-evaluating what the right thing is. Frankly, they should extend eligibility relief beyond just an offer of an extra year. That’s a good start. But more can be done.
For example, let’s say hypothetically that Ament is choosing to pass on an extra year specifically because he wants an opportunity to play in the Premier Lacrosse League (PLL), a rising pro league whose branding opportunities have made them an attractive option for making real money as a pro.
Provided a PLL season will actually happen this year (and that’s obviously not a guarantee), why shouldn’t the NCAA consider a one-time waiver for the athletes impacted by this season’s cancellation to allow them to play professionally after their third year of eligibility and yet STILL return to play their final collegiate season?
If the players have remained in good standing for four years academically, why shouldn’t they both be granted the opportunity to play professionally and yet come back and finish their college career? The timeline for the seasons wouldn’t prevent it from being possible. What’s the argument besides, “Well, we’ve never allowed professionals to play collegiately before,” for why this shouldn’t be allowed?
The players did nothing wrong. They abided by all of the archaic rules for four years. Why can’t these rules be loosened JUST THIS TIME to benefit them? I’ve heard the argument that you could get around the “professional” issue by having any money made put into escrow, but even that seems unnecessary. In these specific circumstances, allow players to make money and then come back to school anyway. We should be willing to establish a new precedent in the face of “an actual global epidemic.”
Perhaps you’re thinking “you know, you don’t want to open Pandora’s box.” And maybe there’s some truth to that. But this is easily measured. We all know who the athletes were that were on spring sports teams this year. Those are the ones that get the benefit. The incoming freshmen of 2021 do not. That seems fairly simple.
And it shouldn’t stop at lacrosse. Realistically, this wouldn’t be possible for baseball. The timeline for college baseball season and when pro players would be expected to report to spring training run into each other. But in a world where the NCAA would do the right thing and make the offer, I would similarly implore MLB/MILB to be willing to offer players drafted after their third year of eligibility the opportunity to play pro ball in the summer and then go back to school for their final year of eligibility if that’s what they want to do. Not every player will choose to do it. But the opportunity should be extended to them.
Furthermore, agent Nicole Lynn (Young Money Sports) suggested that underclassmen who declared for the NFL Draft this year be given the option to return to school to continue their eligibility, arguing that the changes in the process due to the coronavirus outbreak (no in-person meetings and workouts, specifically) might lead to NFL teams being prejudiced toward less risky upperclassmen. I think there’s something to be said for this as well. Perhaps the NFL should agree to tell teams they must wait a week after the draft concludes to sign any undrafted free agents. That would grant underclassmen a week of a “grace period” to decide if they want to come back to school or not.
Like some of the other ideas suggested, this one is probably something the NCAA and NFL should consider even if there wasn’t a global outbreak of a disease. But particularly in that light it would seem to be the right thing to do.
Generally speaking, every effort should be made to give restitution to the athletes impacted so negatively by something so far beyond their control. What has happened so far can be qualified as a “really good start.” But more can and should be done.