• Villanova Sports Law Blog

Time for the NCAA to Intervene to Prevent More Student-Athlete Heartbreak

By: Emily Rollo


Photo: The University of Iowa Men’s and Women’s Swimming and Diving Teams, along with men’s gymnastics and men’s tennis, to be cut after the 2020-21 season.[1]

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is a member-led organization rooted in its commitment to the “well-being and lifelong success of college athletes.”[2] Comprised of 1,098 member institutions and 102 athletic conferences, the NCAA prioritizes the academics, welfare, and fairness of the student-athlete experience in order for them to succeed on the field, in the classroom, and in life beyond college athletics.[3] While each individual athletic program has the right to make its own decisions, they are first members of the NCAA, and the core values of the NCAA should remain at the forefront of each department’s decision-making process.

The common theme throughout the NCAA’s mission is the overall well-being of the student-athlete. However, recent decisions made by NCAA member institutions in reaction to the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, has left some student-athletes, coaches, parents, and supporters wondering if the student-athlete’s well-being was truly at the forefront of these decisions.

Since the outset of the pandemic in March, there have been over 40 Division I programs cut.[4] The universities that have discontinued sports include big name athletic powerhouses such as Stanford University and the University of Iowa, as well as mid-major schools including the University of Cincinnati, University of Akron, and University of Connecticut. The majority of these cuts include Olympic, non-revenue sports such as swimming and diving, tennis, gymnastics, and track and field, to name a few.[5] Two of the most recent and shattering announcements was that William & Mary and Iowa would be unexpectedly cutting their swimming and diving programs, in addition to several other programs, after the 2020-21 season. William & Mary Swimming is the 6-time consecutive men’s Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) Champion and 4-time women’s CAA Champion.[6] The Iowa swimming and diving teams are consistently NCAA Championship qualifiers and All-Americans.[7] They are among four sports teams to be cut including men’s gymnastics and men’s tennis at Iowa.[8] The university is also home to a state-of-the-art pool, and, so much so, that it is the anticipatory host site for the 2021 NCAA Championship Meet.[9] It also is the birthplace of the butterfly stroke.[10]

The feeling among these athletes who had their teams suddenly cut is devastation and heartbreak. They also feel betrayed by their athletic department and university, members of the NCAA.[11] While the pandemic has put universities in a financial strain, especially with the loss of a normal football season, they are forced to make difficult and unpopular decisions. However, there is a significant amount of collateral damage from these decisions. Many student-athletes are derailed by the discontinuation of their team. Some may look to transfer, while some may be forced to abruptly end their career.[12] Clearly, their well-being is compromised by these decisions. This is the cruel side of college athletics that is not advertised.[13] We all saw the joy of Big 10 football players earlier this week from the announcement of the re-instatement of their season. Alternatively, no one sees the Iowa swimmers, gymnasts, and tennis players mourning the loss of their teams. While one player brings in the money, and the other does not, they are all elite level student-athletes who decided to attend the university for specific reasons, such as coaching staff, team culture, and the opportunities provided at the university. Now, all those things are gone for a significant number of Hawkeye student-athletes.

These are clearly very difficult issues and there is no easy answer given the financial strain the schools are facing. The solution cannot be left to each institution, given their financial burdens. In order to ensure some form of consistency, there appears to be an opportunity for the NCAA to get involved in some form to make the best of the bad situation.

At a minimum, the NCAA could impose rules and regulations for schools to follow upon their decision to discontinue teams. In order to preserve their well-being, there must be resources to help schools and student-athletes navigate the fallout. This can be in the form of transfer process guidance and grief counseling. Additionally, the NCAA could create a process that does not allow institutions to cut teams without a lengthy and specific procedure. Without any substantial evidence and explanation for why teams are being cut, perhaps schools should not be allowed to make such rash decisions, or they risk facing NCAA sanctions. Also, the NCAA could consider instituting salary caps, staff size limits, and other expenditure restrictions in order to prevent the extravagant and lavish spending on coaches, gear, and travel.[14] This type of controlled budget regulation imposed by the NCAA could help member institutions, and especially through financially tough times, so they do not have to resort to eliminating programs.

The other side of this argument is that the institutions are separate entities with obligations to maintain their acceleration and status in a financially responsible way. There could be legal limitations on some of these proposed actions by the NCAA. This is a very complicated situation facing university athletic departments, but the affected student-athletes deserve some action.

Another avenue to consider in order to avoid such turmoil is whether the federal government could help fund the NCAA. Trillion-dollar packages have been given out to the public and private sectors to keep industries afloat. If allowed, money can be dedicated to the NCAA to distribute to athletic departments to encourage them to keep all their programs and not have to pick and choose which programs to cut in order to stay afloat. Just like energy and airlines are important to the country’s well-being, so are collegiate student-athletes since they are part of the future of the country.

While we all understand that these are unprecedented times, the student-athlete’s well-being is not something to be taken lightly. There is no more appropriate time for the NCAA to intervene and uphold its commitment to providing a paramount student-athlete experience in order to bring about lifelong success.


References:

[1] Jared Anderson, William & Mary to Cut 7 Sports, Including Swimming, After 2020-2021, SwimSwam (September 3, 2020), https://swimswam.com/william-mary-to-cut-7-sports-including-swimming-after-2020-2021/

[2] NCAA, What is the NCAA?, NCAA, Retrieved from http://www.ncaa.org/about/resources/media-center/ncaa-101/what-ncaa

[3] Id.

[4] The Associated Press, List of College Teams Cut Because of Coronavirus Pandemic, AP News (June 24, 2020), https://apnews.com/d76b49244ab5ddc4bbee95b66d745d92

[5] Id.

[6] Jared Anderson, William & Mary to Cut 7 Sports, Including Swimming, After 2020-2021, SwimSwam (September 3, 2020), https://swimswam.com/william-mary-to-cut-7-sports-including-swimming-after-2020-2021/

[7] Andy Ross, University of Iowa to Cut Swimming & Diving After 2020-21 Season (Updated), Swimming World Magazine (August 21, 2020), https://www.swimmingworldmagazine.com/news/university-of-iowa-to-cut-swimming-diving-after-2020-21-season-updated/

[8] Pat Forde, Iowa’s Elimination of Four Sports Shows the Cruel Side of College Athletics, Sports Illustrated (August 25, 2020), https://www.si.com/college/2020/08/25/iowa-cuts-sports-swimming-gymnastics-tennis

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Ross Dellenger and Pat Forde, A Collegiate Model in Crisis: The Crippling Impact of Schools Cutting Sports, Sports Illustrated (June 11, 2020), https://www.si.com/college/2020/06/11/college-sports-program-cuts-ncaa-olympics