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NCAA grants extra eligibility to spring athletes

IU baseball coach Jeff Mercer gets his wish, but the next steps are murky

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Photo by Mat Gdowski/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Hoosiers’ clubhouse at Bart Kaufman Field is still stocked with gear. Bats are waiting in the bat racks, and lockers are full of cleats, gloves and uniforms. The only thing missing is the players, a metaphor for a season frozen in time.

When the NCAA announced on March 12 that it was canceling the remainder of the spring season due to the ongoing coronavirus crisis, Indiana players suddenly scattered to their hometowns across the country, leaving their belongings behind, unsure of what was coming next. There were rumors that the NCAA might grant players an extra year of eligibility, but that was merely informal chatter. Nothing was concrete.

That changed on Monday, when the governing body of college athletics voted to allow schools to provide spring-sport athletes an additional season of competition. For Jeff Mercer, the NCAA’s decision was a wish come true. It was only 11 years ago that Mercer was a college athlete, himself, and in the few weeks since his second season as IU baseball coach was abruptly cut short, Mercer came to want one thing: a chance for his players to get back the season that they lost.

“You only get so many years to play sports and the vast majority of players are not going to make their living playing professional baseball,” Mercer told reporters on a teleconference last week. “They may play professionally, but as far as playing Major League Baseball enough to support their families for the rest of their lives, the majority of college athletes are not going to do that. I would hate to see one of the four or five years that they get to play college sports taken away (through no fault of their own).”

So Mercer got his wish. Now comes the messy part.

Although the NCAA voted to increase college baseball’s 35-man roster limit to account for a surplus of players, minimizing at least part of the headache for Mercer and his colleagues, there will be a considerable financial strain on athletic departments to make it all happen. USA Today projects that Power 5 schools could have to spend between $500,000 to $900,000 just to allow seniors to return to their respective programs next year. Mercer has seven seniors on this year’s roster.

At the same time, the NCAA ruled that schools can determine and readjust how much scholarship money will be made available to individual athletes, meaning the amount of aid institutions choose to dole out could range from the same as this year to little or nothing at all.

“I realize the ramifications that make it a very difficult process,” Mercer said last week. “There are unintended consequences and ripple effects that carry on four or five years in the future.”

Those will be for Mercer — and coaches across all spring sports — to navigate over the coming weeks and months. Though the next steps are murky, Mercer can at least take a measure of solace in the short-term clarity Monday’s decision provided.

And soon, that Hoosier clubhouse will unfreeze for a new season and a fresh start for those who thought they may have left it behind.