Phoenix 101: How Does NCAA Eligibility Work? How Has COVID-19 Affected It?

Harry Soenksen | The PhoenixThe Norville Center for Intercollegiate Athletics is no longer in use following Steve Watson’s decision to cancel spring sports March 12 due to concerns about COVID-19.

NCAA eligibility has been in constant discussion with the spring seasons getting cut short due to concerns over the COVID-19 — the disease caused by the 2019 coronavirus. However, at its core, the NCAA rulings on eligibility can be confusing.

Division I student-athletes have a five-year window to complete their four years of eligibility, according to the NCAA. The athlete must remain academically eligible while making “progress towards a bachelor’s degree at a reasonable pace.”

What is a “redshirt?”

An athlete can “redshirt” and sit out for a season without losing a year of eligibility. The player is still enrolled as a full-time student and is allowed to practice with the team during the redshirt season. However, the player sits out of games and scrimmages for an entire academic year in order to preserve a year of their eligibility. 

Why are players redshirted?

Sometimes, coaches will redshirt incoming first-year players to give them a year to adjust to collegiate athletics during practice without wasting a season of eligibility. Loyola men’s volleyball head coach Mark Hulse frequently redshirts players during their first season so they can “find their role.” Before the season got cut short, three redshirt freshman — outside hitters Cole Schlothauer and Andrew Lyons and middle blocker Danny Farrell — were key rotation players for the Ramblers after sitting out last season.  

Zack Miller | The Phoenix Cole Schlothauer (1) took a redshirt year last season.

The NCAA states “if you play in even one second of a game” you are no longer considered a redshirt for that season and a season of eligibility would be used. However, there is an exception to this rule for injured players. Athletes can seek a medical redshirt if they suffered a season-ending injury before the midway point of their respective season. If a player suffers a season-ending injury early in the year but already used their redshirt, they can still apply for a waiver which would give them a sixth year of eligibility.

For example, Loyola men’s basketball sophomore guard Cooper Kaifes sat out this past season as a medical redshirt after suffering a torn labrum in his hip in July. Kaifes was eligible for the medical hardship waiver — the technical term for sitting out due to medical reasons — because his injury was deemed season-ending and occurred long before the midpoint of the season.

Nick Schultz | The Phoenix Loyola guard Cooper Kaifes became a fan favorite during his first year with the Ramblers. Kaifes redshirted due to injury in what would’ve been his sophomore campaign.

What happens if you transfer schools?

Another use of a redshirt is for transferring players, but the rules and guidelines are complex. For starters, players only need to sit out a year if they’re transferring while playing baseball, men’s or women’s basketball, football, or men’s ice hockey. Athletes of any other sport would be eligible immediately if they chose to transfer to a new school.

This season, Braden Norris redshirted for the men’s basketball team after transferring from Oakland University. Earlier this month, Abby O’Connor left Loyola’s women’s basketball team for Gonzaga University. Both of these examples require the athlete to sit out a season since they transferred between Division I schools while playing basketball.

Nick Schultz | The Phoenix After transferring to Gonzaga University, Abby O’Connor will have to sit out a season due to NCAA transfer rules.

Also, athletes are immediately eligible to play if they transfer to a Division II or III school. For example, after last year, forward Christian Negron on the Loyola men’s basketball team decided to leave the Ramblers for Grand Valley State University. Negron was able to play this past season since the Lakers are in Division II.

However, players transferring from Division II or III to Division I follow the same rules as those transferring within Division I. Tate Hall, currently a redshirt junior on the men’s basketball team, sat out a year after transferring to the Ramblers from Division II University of Indianapolis — as is the case for all baseball, men’s or women’s basketball, football, or men’s ice hockey players. But Jessica Shield, a senior on the softball team, was eligible immediately after joining the Ramblers following two seasons at the Division II University of Wisconsin-Parkside.

 It’s important to note these rules for transfer eligibility and medical redshirts aren’t set in stone. If an athlete doesn’t meet the requirements to gain a medical redshirt or receive immediate eligibility after transferring, they can apply for a waiver. With that said, waivers are rarely given by the NCAA. 

How has COVID-19 impacted eligibility?

With the spring seasons getting cut short, the NCAA announced they would allow schools to grant an extra year of eligibility to spring athletes. This ruling applies to the men’s volleyball, softball, golf and track and field teams. Seniors have the opportunity to return for another year, while non-seniors will gain an additional year of eligibility.

Sydney Shipe | The Phoenix Jessica Shields (batter) is one of the spring sports athletes who will have an opportunity to return next season for an extra year of eligibility.

Loyola Athletics Director Steve Watson said it’s still uncertain how many seniors will use that extra season of eligibility and return to the Ramblers next year.

“We’re still navigating exactly what this is going to look like for us,” Watson said. “[Our seniors] are looking at graduating … and a lot of them already have jobs lined up. They’ve got some really tough decisions to make in the coming months.”

What about men’s and women’s basketball?

While the NCAA Tournaments and some conference tournaments were cut short, the NCAA decided that enough of the season had been completed and didn’t warrant an extra year of eligibility for senior players.

What are some other reasons for losing eligibility?

Additional reasons players could lose eligibility include: receiving payment or other impermissible benefits to play a sport, having played on a professional sports team for that sport and knowingly participating in sports wagering.

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