Skip to main content

A Second Chance: The NCAA’s One Year Eligibility Extension for College Athletes

White baseball with red stitching and blue NCAA logo

Photo Source: Willis Lam, Official NCAA/College Baseball, Flickr (May 30, 2014) (CC BY-SA 2.0).

By Alexandra Doran*                                                       Posted October 21, 2020

In late March 2020, the NCAA’s Division I Council voted to give student-athletes playing spring sports “an additional season of competition and an extension of their period of eligibility.”[1]  The Council approved the extension after all winter and spring athletes in the NCAA lost most of their 2020 seasons due to the COVID-19 pandemic.[2]  In August, the NCAA expanded its spring decision by approving a proposal to give fall athletes the same one-year extension of their eligibility, regardless of whether they compete in the 2020-2021 academic year or not.[3]  Universities will have the opportunity to choose whether they want to apply this eligibility extension for their athletes.[4]  The NCAA’s Board of Governors “encouraged conferences and schools to take action in the best interest of student athletes and their communities.”[5]


In addition to extending eligibility, the NCAA also adjusted their financial aid requirements by allowing teams to retain returning athletes without counting against scholarship limits.[6]  The NCAA made adjustments in order to give student-athletes, who had been in their last year of eligibility and decided to stay for the additional year, the chance to keep their scholarships.[7]    However, this does not mean that scholarship athletes, who elect to take advantage of the extended eligibility, will automatically receive scholarship funds; that decision is up to the universities.[8]  In 1991, the NCAA established the Student Assistance Fund to support student-athletes with unmet financial needs.[9] The NCAA distributes these funds to member conferences and schools each year based on the size of a university’s student-athlete population.[10] Therefore, universities that decide to provide a returning athlete scholarship money can use the NCAA’s Student Assistance Fund.[11] However, universities are not required to use their own funds or the Student Assistance Fund to give returning athletes financial aid.[12] They still may opt not to offer any financial aid to these returning athletes[13]

Even with access to the Student Assistance Fund, it will be very difficult for some universities to fund additional scholarships.[14]  Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, colleges and their athletic departments are facing enormous revenue losses resulting in increased budget restrictions.[15]  This financial uncertainty could cause some student-athletes, who opt for the additional year, to see significant reductions in their scholarship agreements.[16]     


The NCAA has also loosened roster restrictions for spring and fall sports.[17]  For example, the thirty-five-man roster has been lifted for collegiate baseball teams.[18]  This change allows returning seniors, whose season was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, to return for an additional year without it counting against the roster limit.[19]  The relaxation of roster restrictions has sparked some concerns over inflated rosters and roster management.[20]  Universities with large athletic programs and the most money, such as member schools in the Power Five Conferences, could have massive rosters because they can afford the costs of keeping these players.[21]  This financial ability gives them an advantage over smaller schools that cannot afford to pack their rosters with so many players.[22]  At the universities that cannot afford to maintain larger rosters, “seniors will either be pushed out or they will take a spot reserved for an incoming freshman or underclassman.”[23]

Denials by Universities

Some universities have chosen to forgo the NCAA’s extension of eligibility.[24]  Some Ivy League universities, such as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, have chosen not to grant their spring student-athletes an extra year of eligibility.[25]  Officials from Princeton University stated, “[w]e need all of our students–laboratory scientists, performing artists, student-athletes, and others–to persist and graduate, even in these difficult circumstances.”[26]  Since Princeton’s refusal to extend eligibility, over ninety Ivy League senior spring sports athletes choose to enter the transfer portal in order to play another season, elsewhere.[27]

Other schools with more extensive sports programs, such as the University of Wisconsin, have also chosen not to allow their spring sports seniors to return in 2021.[28]  University of Wisconsin’s athletic director, Barry Alvarez, encouraged their senior student-athletes to “move on with your life.”[29]  University of Wisconsin officials stated that it would not seek eligibility extensions because of the “unprecedented uncertainty in college athletics” caused by COVID-19.[30]  Alvarez also warned about uncertainties caused by bringing seniors back, including roster sizes and financial burdens.[31]

Potential Effects on the NFL Draft

The NCAA’s allowance of student-athletes to return to college for an additional season has generated uncertainty for the 2021 NFL draft pool as well.[32]  Depending on how many senior football players choose to return for an additional year, the NCAA’s ruling could greatly affect the level of talent available in the 2021 draft.[33]  This effect will be felt during the later rounds of the draft because top prospects, who have a good chance of being selected early, are unlikely to want to return to college football.[34]  However, typical middle-to-late round selections may want to return to college football for an additional year in order to improve their draft stock for the 2022 draft.[35]  This means that some athletes, who would otherwise remain undrafted, will get picked.[36]  The eligibility extension could also affect future drafts because all players, not just seniors, have the opportunity to play for an additional year.[37]  


COVID-19 and the NCAA’s eligibility extension has generated immense uncertainty in college athletics.[38] Many of the effects resulting from the NCAA’s extension of eligibility still remain to be seen.[39] Student-athlete scholarships and rosters sizes will likely increase at most universities and the NFL draft will potentially be affected over the next few years.[40]

*Staff Writer, Jeffrey S. Moorad Sports Law Journal, J.D. Candidate, May 2022, Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law.


[1] Michelle Hosick, Division I Council Extends Eligibility for Student-Athletes Impacts by Covid-19, NCAA (Mar. 30, 2020), (noting this vote authorizes universities to make final decisions on whether or not to extend eligibility for their athletes).

[2] See id. (finding winter sports not included in NCAA’s decision because all or most of their regular seasons were completed).

[3] See Ross Dellenger, Inflated Rosters, Financial Burdens and ‘Tough Conversations’: Ramifications of an Extra Year of Eligibility, Sports Illustrated (Aug. 19, 2020), (stating decision gives “all athletes playing football, soccer, volleyball and cross country have a fifth and, in some cases, a sixth year of eligibility”).

[4] See Hosick, supra note 1 (stating this gives schools flexibility in decision-making at campus level).

[5] See id. (quoting NCAA Council chair and athletics director at University of Pennsylvania, Grace Calhoun).

[6] See Ralph D. Russo, NCAA Eligibility Ruling Solves Some Problems, Creates Others, Wash. Post (Aug. 21, 2020), (including “underclassmen will get access to a waiver they can use to extend their careers, but beyond the 2021-2022 academic year, those athletes will count against scholarship and roster limits”).

[7] See id. (noting “no athlete is guaranteed financial aid or a scholarship” under NCAA’s ruling because it is ultimately up to schools).

[8] See id. (finding there is no guarantee of financial aid or scholarships for returning athletes taking advantage of eligibility extension).

[9]  See NCAA Special Assistance Fund, LSU Sports, (last visited Oct. 6, 2020) (listing categories of expenses for which student-athletes may receive funding); see also Jared Thompson, Special financial assistance delivered to Division 1 members, NCAA (Apr. 19, 2017), (finding NCAA funds may be used for academic support, life skills & career success, diversity & inclusion programs, and health and well-being).

[10] See Thompson, supra note 9 (noting that funds provide most support to schools with large student-athlete populations).

[11] See Hosick, supra note 1 (“Schools also will have the ability to use the NCAA’s Student Assistance Fund to pay for scholarships for students who take advantage of the additional eligibility flexibility in 2020-21.”).

[12] See Thompson, supra note 9 (finding that universities receiving funds from NCAA choose how they will be spent but they are subject to random audits by NCAA).

[13] See Russo, supra note 6 (arguing some schools may struggle to give returning seniors scholarships because of tightening budgets).

[14] See id. (finding scholarships for football players typically range from $30,000 to $80,000 per year).

[15] See id. (reporting University of Iowa announced in August that it would be discontinuing four sports teams because of large revenue losses).

[16] See Brady McCollough, NCAA Approves Extra Year of Eligibility for Spring Athletes, With a Catch, L.A. Times (Mar. 30, 2020), (noting underclassmen and incoming freshman will not see much change to their financial aid because seniors will be most affected).

[17] See Russo, supra note 6 (illustrating eligibility extension would allow Trevor Lawrence, junior quarterback at Clemson University, to play full 2020 season and two more additional seasons).

[18] See Aria Gerson, NCAA Provides Relief on Division I Baseball Roster Limits in Wake of Shorter MLB Draft, USA Today (June 10, 2020), (reporting teams already had players entering transfer portal because they did not think there would be room on their roster).

[19] See Hosick, supra note 1 (criticizing that “if 20 scholarship-earning seniors on a football team decided to return for the 2021 season, that program’s roster could conceivable, barring attrition, be at 105 players”).

[20] See id. (finding budget issues will force coaches to make tough roster management decisions because they will not be able to increase roster size ).

[21] See id. (noting schools with significant funds and most motivation to win could potentially have football rosters in triple digits).

[22] See id. (arguing this will cause disparity between Power 5 schools and Group of Five schools to grow even wider).

[23] See id. (calling this issue “domino effect”).

[24] See Doug Feinberg, Some Ivy Schools, Including Harvard, Deny Withdrawing Option to Spring Athletes, Bos. Globe (Apr. 9, 2020), (citing Harvard, Yale, and Princeton as examples of schools forgoing eligibility extension).

[25] See id. (finding other Ivy League schools “are not encouraging seniors to withdraw, but will still allow them that option if they choose to”).

[26] See id. (noting that Princeton and Harvard athletes found out about universities decisions in email messages from athletic directors).

[27] See id. (stating transfers occurred over course of one month).

[28] See Josh Slagter, No Extra Year: Wisconsin Tells Spring Sports Seniors to ‘Move On’, MLive (Apr. 9, 2020), (criticizing University of Wisconsin for “kicking [their] seniors to the curb”).

[29] See id. (noting that Alvarez stated this on his monthly radio show).

[30] See Adam Wells, Wisconsin Won’t Seek Eligibility Waiver for Seniors Despite NCAA Covid-19 Ruling, Bleacher Rep. (Apr. 9, 2020), (noting unprecedented uncertainty caused by COVID-19 pandemic and it’s effect on economy).

[31] See id. (finding Alvarez stated that extending eligibility “creates a lot of problems”).

[32] See Chase Goodbread, NCAA Eligibility Decision Leaves 2021 NFL Draft Pool Murky, NFL (Aug. 21, 2020), (listing questions being asked by NFL teams due to uncertainty in 2021 draft).

[33] See id. (noting seniors choosing to stay additional year will be focused on 2022 draft).

[34] See id. (finding third- or fourth-year starters won’t benefit much from additional year in college because unlikely they will develop much more).

[35] See id. (comparing first-year starters who could also benefit from another year in college football to continue developing their skills).

[36] See id. (“It could cause there to be some overdrafted players, because if a lot of seniors who would normally be fifth-, sixth-round guys decide to go back for another senior year, that's going to mean guys who would otherwise be undrafted free agents will get picked.”).

[37] See id. (noting players choosing to extend eligibility after 2020-2021 season will count against school scholarships and roster count).

[38] For further discussion NCAA’s eligibility extension and resulting uncertainties, see supra notes 1-4, 11-13, 20-23, 32-37 and accompanying text.

[39] For further discussion of effects of eligibility extension, see supra notes 6-23, 32-37 and accompanying text.

[40] For further discussion of potential issues arising with scholarships, rosters, and future NFL drafts, see supra notes 6-23, 32-37 and accompanying text.