Monday Will Be A Landmark Day For The NCAA And Notre Dame Athletics With A Vote On Eligibility Relief
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Monday A Landmark Day For NCAA, Notre Dame Athletics

Even during a time in American history when sports seem to matter little, Monday still provides one of the most important days the NCAA has ever faced in its 113 years governing college athletics.

About two weeks ago on March 13 — one day after coronavirus fears caused the NCAA to cancel its winter and spring championship events — the association’s Division I Council members tried to ease the hardship and agreed that relief would be “appropriate for all Division I student-athletes who participated in spring sports” and an extra year of athletic eligibility would be offered to amend the one lost. Details, the statement said, “would be finalized later.”

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Touchdown Jesus on the campus of Notre Dame
Many Notre Dame athletes, and thousands of others around the country, will be closely tracking an NCAA eligibility vote on Monday. (Matt Cashore USA Today/Sports)

Later arrives Monday when this 40-member council — made up of university athletic directors, administrators, athletes and faculty athletics representatives — debates and votes on exactly if and how eligibility relief will be implemented.

This well-intentioned proposal seems commonsensical. Its delivery and execution is more tangled.

“There are so many questions with what this will look like,” veteran Irish softball coach Deanna Gumpf said. “I want this entire team to get an extra year because they all lost one, but is that realistic? There is so much to work through.”

In a nutshell, college athletes are allowed five years to complete four seasons of athletic eligibility, and the 2020 spring season at Notre Dame had barely begun for sports such as baseball, softball, lacrosse, golf and others when it was prematurely canceled.

Irish women’s lacrosse coach Christine Halfpenny and her No. 2 Irish were 7-0 and ready for a critical ACC showdown at No. 1 North Carolina when their season was scrapped and the careers of her graduating seniors declared over.

The one-versus-two matchup can’t be saved, but maybe a season for Halfpenny’s seniors can be if the NCAA sees fit.

“If this vote puts us in a great position to represent the excellence that Notre Dame is known for, and allows those athletes to finish their careers on their terms, I’m all for it,” she said. “How we do that, we’ll have to see.”

Some of the tough questions the council faces Monday include:

• Will eligibility relief apply only to graduating seniors, and if so, is that fair to the rising seniors who have waited for their turns?

• Will roster sizes be increased to make room for incoming freshmen to join the unexpected group of returning graduated seniors?

• Will member schools and conferences support any plan the NCAA puts forth?

• And, how will eligibility relief affect scholarship allocations?

Most spring programs are considered “equivalency sports,” meaning a predetermined number of scholarship athletes on these teams receive a personalized piece of the scholarship fund based on individual performance and value.

Do the proven grad seniors who choose to return get the biggest bite from the financial apple while the younger players now split the leftovers?

“If these seniors want an extra year, I think they should get one, but not just the seniors, all of the players,” said Gumpf, whose team was 13-9 when its season was canceled. “I’m hopeful this will all work out the way it should work out. None of this is easy.”

Budgets, rosters, coursework, recruiting — Monday provides a beefy to-do list for this NCAA council to work through.

“We’ll find out exactly what that word ‘relief’ really means when it comes to eligibility relief,” Halfpenny said. “How many [grade] classes are we talking about? How does that look on paper? And squad sizes? We can carry a team of about 35 and we’re playing about 18 kids in a game. That’s a solid number for us and I never wanted it to balloon bigger than that.”

The council on Monday is also expected to address eligibility relief for winter sports athletes, most notably the men’s and women’s basketball programs that had their conference and other postseason tournaments cut short by coronavirus.

Irish head coach Mike Brey said his team played 31 games this season and it’s time to move on.

“Selfishly, can we get Johnny Mooney back for another year, of course, I’d sign up for that,” Brey said of a potential return option for his first-team All-ACC forward and the nation’s No. 2 rebounder. “But I just don’t think that’s right and I think most coaches feel the same way.”

With all of America’s attention rightfully focused elsewhere right now, Monday’s NCAA proceedings likely won’t become more than a brief in most daily newspapers.

But for the thousands of student-athletes impacted by the council’s vote, this is front-page stuff.

“I think it’s important that the seniors and fifth-year [graduates] get to finish their careers on their terms,” Halfpenny said. “I think that would be special and empowering.”

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