Mekhia Freeman has played softball for as long as she can remember and loves the game so much that, when her playing days at Georgia Southern are through, she plans to be a grad assistant coach for the Eagles.
She was among the thousands of college athletes nationwide heartbroken when the coronavirus pandemic brought her senior season to a premature halt. Her reaction to the NCAA Division I Council voting Monday to grant spring-sports athletes an extra year of eligibility to replace the one canceled by COVID-19 was predictable.
“I was quick to call (my parents) right after I heard the news,” Freeman told the AJC. “I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, we’re coming back for round five.’”
The financial ramifications of granting extra scholarships – the NCAA ruled that schools can go above the normal scholarship limits to accommodate returning seniors – likely will cause difficulties for athletic departments nationwide. And there are other uncertainties that the new legislation has created.
But, at least in the short term, the NCAA’s decision was well-received.
“We were happy to have our student-athletes in those spring sports to have eligibility restored for the seniors in their last year of eligibility,” Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity told the AJC. “That part of it was good to see. I do think it presents some challenges in baseball that might separate it from other sports because of the scholarship limitations.”
Incoming Georgia Southern AD Jared Benko shared McGarity’s approval.
“Part of it is trying to dive more into what does that mean for Sun Belt schools and Georgia Southern specifically,” Benko said. “I think it’s early. (But) anytime you can positively impact the student-athlete experience, you welcome that.”
The father of Georgia Tech baseball player Austin Wilhite, a senior second baseman, said he was very thankful for the decision. Randy Wilhite described a feeling of “unfinished business” after the Yellow Jackets were upset in the NCAA regional round last spring and then this season was abruptly stopped.
“I felt like all the players that were impacted in baseball didn’t have an opportunity to display their full talents for a full season and didn’t get the opportunity to be developed through a season, so I feel like this was a blessing in disguise to give all of them another opportunity,” Randy Wilhite said.
What will complicate decisions for would-be returning seniors is that the NCAA granted schools permission to offer a different scholarship amount to those seniors than what they had been previously receiving, including the option to offer no financial aid. As athletic departments nationwide face revenue shortages – not least of which is the NCAA’s reducing distributions to Division I schools and conferences from $600 million to $225 million because of the cancellation of its men’s basketball tournament and other championship events – many schools may struggle to cover the additional scholarship expense.
“I think right now, we’re trying to figure out what we can do to help (returning seniors) and then what we financially and responsibly can do,” Benko said.
Decisions will be made school by school, team by team, athlete by athlete. Certainly, some seniors with the opportunity to continue competing will move on to take a job, begin graduate school or just begin life after college. Others may want to return, but, lacking sufficient scholarship help, will choose to pass. Meanwhile, athletic departments trying to honor the scholarship amounts given previously to seniors – most sports offer partial scholarship aid, not full scholarships as in football and basketball – will try to find ways to come up with the extra expense.
Randy Wilhite said that his family will send Austin back for a fifth season at Tech regardless of what decision coach Danny Hall makes regarding the size of his scholarship.
“Whatever (Tech coaches) come up with, we’ll make it happen,” Randy Wilhite said. “We’ll just have to make it happen.”
Baseball players eligible for the draft face another set of decisions. The Major League Baseball draft will be shortened from 40 rounds, possibly to 10 rounds or even five. In a normal year, juniors selected in the draft typically turn professional at the end of their seasons. However, juniors who aren’t drafted but offered contracts as undrafted free agents with signing bonuses of a reported maximum of $20,000 will have to decide whether they want to sign or return to college and try again in a year, when the draft is expected to expand. Likewise, seniors such as Wilhite would have the same decision.
Among other complications, baseball coaches will have to manage their scholarship allotment (teams are permitted to award 11.7 scholarships) in this flux. McGarity said that the issue will “affect college baseball seriously.”
They are among the myriad challenges that face the college athletics industry. Perhaps the most looming is how the pandemic could affect the football season. The possibility of a shortened season – or worse – and the revenue shortfalls that would produce could be potentially crippling for college athletics.
For now, at least, there are happy college seniors, waiting out the semester at home in online classes and, now, hoping upon a spring unfettered by the threat of a highly contagious coronavirus. Freeman, a Georgia Southern outfielder, was in disbelief when her coach informed her and her teammates that the season was over halfway through the regular season.
A finance major with a 3.4 GPA, Freeman had wanted to end the season, and her career, on her own terms. A starter since her freshman season, the East Coweta High grad was twice named to the Sun Belt Conference’s all-conference team. Among her motivations for wanting to play again was her father, Marvin, who had been unable to watch her play this season because of health issues.
“So him getting to see me play again means the world,” she said.
Staff writer Chip Towers contributed to this article.
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