All winter athletes in NCAA Division I sports will be given an additional year of eligibility, and all football programs will be allowed to compete in bowl games -- regardless of their records -- as part of one-time rule changes in response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
The NCAA's Division I Council voted to approve both measures this week during its annual meetings. Council chair Grace Calhoun, the athletic director at Penn, said the council wanted to provide as much opportunity and flexibility to athletes as possible amid the uncertainty hanging over this year of college sports.
In a normal year, college football teams need a .500 record to qualify for a postseason game. Calhoun said the council decided to drop that requirement in 2020 to "continue the theme of providing maximum flexibility."
NCAA rule-makers previously voted to allow all spring sport athletes and fall sport athletes to maintain a year of eligibility, no matter what portion of their season was impacted by the pandemic. The same rule will apply for any athlete who participates in a sport in the upcoming winter season. Calhoun said the council didn't want athletes opting to redshirt this year because of fears that their seasons might be cut short or otherwise negatively impacted by the pandemic.
"We felt it was important to make this decision now so student-athletes had the peace of mind to go into this season and compete," Calhoun told ESPN on Wednesday. "They know they can regain that eligibility and have their clock automatically extended, so they're not taking that chance on the front end if they choose to compete."
UConn women's coach Geno Auriemma said he thought a lot of his fellow coaches would object to the adjusted eligibility rule.
"I don't have to worry about -- I don't have any seniors," Auriemma said. "But I think you're going to have a lot of coaches that are going to go, 'You're putting me in a tough spot here.' Because now you're going to have some seniors go, 'Hey, I want to stay.' And then you've got a coach going, like, 'I wasn't planning on you staying.' Now what are you going to do -- turn the kid out?
"I don't like it. If you lose your season, I can see that. If you say, 'Hey, look, the fall sports guys, you lost your season. We'll give that back to you.' I can see that. That makes sense. But how are you going to let somebody play a whole season and then give them another year?"
Council members also decided to push forward during this week's meetings with two other rule changes that are likely to have much larger long-term impacts on college sports. The council intends to propose new rules that would dictate how athletes can make money from their names, images and likenesses and a new rule that would allow all athletes to transfer one time without having to sit out a season.
The NCAA's board of governors will vote in January on whether to officially adopt those proposals. The details of both proposals can be changed at any point in the next three months leading up to that vote.
Most NCAA sports already allow college athletes to switch schools without penalty. However, in football, men's and women's basketball, baseball and men's ice hockey, current rules dictate that a player has to sit for one season if he or she changes schools before graduating. The rule change would make it so that athletes in those five sports are also allowed to move schools once during their college sports careers.
Calhoun said the rule proposal was met with "broad support and very little debate." The biggest issue to be resolved with the transfer rule is whether the NCAA will implement a deadline for athletes to tell their current schools that they intend to leave. Calhoun said there were multiple proposals on how to handle that detail, which ranged from players' being allowed to transfer anytime they want to having separate deadlines for each season of sports to allowing an extended deadline for athletes when a coach leaves a program.
On the name, image and likeness (NIL) front, council members debated a proposal from the working group that has been assigned to come up with new rules as they continue to sort through some of the details of how college athletes will be able to make money in the future. A little more than a year ago, the NCAA's board of governors told each division of the association to revise its rules restricting athletes from making money by selling the rights to their NIL. Under pressure from state and federal lawmakers, the association is expected to vote on changes that would go into effect no later than next fall.
Federal and state lawmakers might also have a say in how much the NCAA is allowed to restrict the future earning power of college athletes. After college sports leaders asked for their help, several members of Congress introduced pieces of legislation that address the changing landscape of college sports. State laws that have already passed could go into effect as soon as next summer if they are not preempted by federal legislation. NCAA leaders are hoping their proposed changes will work in concert with what Congress decides to pass to create a uniform set of rules that apply across the nation. Some members of Congress have expressed concern that the NCAA is unwilling to go far enough in expanding the rights and benefits of college athletes.
Calhoun said the group was trying to be "as permissive as possible while making sure there was fairness and integrity in the process." College leaders have said they are concerned that an unrestricted market for college athlete endorsements would be used as a thinly veiled recruiting tool, rather than matching the true market value of an endorsement. Calhoun said she hopes that transparency and flexibility will help them manage some of the still unresolved issues in balancing those two objectives.
The rule changes proposed this week would allow athletes to be paid for signing autographs, teaching lessons or camps, and appearing in commercials, among other items, Calhoun said. Athletes would have to disclose any deals to their school. The NCAA probably would rely on a third-party administrator to organize those disclosures and look for abnormalities, such as a payment that is clearly higher than fair market value for a particular endorsement. It isn't clear what consequences would follow a deal deemed inappropriate, nor is it clear who would decide what is appropriate or how that would be decided.
"If there is sunshine on that, maybe that takes care of some of these abnormalities and things that might make some feel like this really was not a fair deal," Calhoun said. "I'll also acknowledge, as much time as we've spent talking about this and contemplating how to draft the legislation, we also have said many times that these are the types of major changes that sometimes you have to live with a little bit and see where they work and where they don't work. I don't think anyone feels like, even as we continue to refine the proposals before January, that we're going to have this 100 percent right. There is going to be a period of time where we have to see how it is implemented and what works well and what might have to be refined."
The current proposal also would impose some restrictions on the types of companies athletes would be allowed to endorse. Athletes would be prohibited from endorsing brands that go against NCAA values, such as alcohol, drugs, tobacco, gambling or adult entertainment.
Further restrictions could be left up to schools. Some college sports administrators have suggested that college athletes shouldn't be allowed to sign deals with companies that are direct competitors with brands that sponsor their school. For example, they think an athlete at a school that wears Nike uniforms should not be able to sign a contract with a different shoe company.
Calhoun said this week's discussions led her group to believe that each school should be allowed to make a decision on how to handle potential conflicts between its sponsors and potential sponsors of its athletes. In that scenario, schools would be required to disclose their rules and restrictions to prospective athletes before they sign to compete for that school.
"These conversations have been a long time in coming because there aren't any easy answers," Calhoun said. "But I think we've put forward a great package that will be refined by the membership over time. We're headed in the right direction at least."
Information from ESPN's Graham Hays was used in this report.