SIU says yes to offering extended eligibility following NCAA’s decision

By Brooke Buerck, Sports Reporter

Southern Illinois University department of athletics has decided to offer its spring sport student-athletes, including seniors, one additional year of eligibility to compete following the NCAA Division I Council’s announcement on March 30.

Division I athletes are allotted four seasons of competition in a five-year timespan, but the Council’s decision will allow universities to choose whether or not they want to restore one season of competition for athletes whose seasons came to a halt during the COVID-19 global pandemic. 

“The Council also will allow schools to self-apply a one-year extension of eligibility for spring-sport student-athletes, effectively extending each student’s five-year “clock” by a year. This decision was especially important for student-athletes who had reached the end of their five-year clock in 2020 and saw their seasons end abruptly,” the NCAA announced in a written statement.

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Liz Jarnigan, SIU director of athletics, said in a phone interview that the department is in favor of the decision and will be offering extended eligibility to senior athletes, but covering the cost of student-athlete scholarships will be difficult to manage. 

“When we say that student-athlete well-being is first and foremost in the work that we do, this decision placed the well-being and the consideration of student-athletes first,” Jarnigan said. “So we’re very very much in support of it, however it is quite a costly endeavor and so now we’re having to figure out how we are able to manage that.”

In their announcement, the NCAA said athletics departments won’t be required to offer the same amount of award for athletes returning that would have exhausted their eligibility this spring season. 

“To what extent we will be able to continue the same level of scholarships [these student-athletes] might be on… we just need to figure out how we will be able to pay for that. It is an expensive endeavor for us, to the tune of about $400,000, and additional scholarship money that we will need,” Jarnigan said.

The NCAA announced that stipulations on their Student Assistance Fund, which is distributed among member schools annually, will be waived to allow for use in supporting scholarships. 

Despite this, Jarnigan said the department will be receiving around $700,000 less than usual from this fund due to the NCAA cutting their distributions to membership institutions this fiscal year by about 64%. 

Jarnigan said the department will have to find alternative ways to cover the costs of supporting students on athletic scholarships, but no decisions have been made yet due to the fluid nature of the situation. 

“I do know that fundraising is always an option but is very difficult during this time when everyone is suffering financially to ask people for money, so we’re not going to do it right now. We’re going to take a hard look at a lot of things,” Jarnigan said.

While some uncertainty remains surrounding the financial aspect of senior athletes being able to return, Jarnigan said the decision will ultimately be a win-win for students and the university.  

“The vast majority of our student athletes that we’re talking about are on track to graduate now or this summer, but they will be allowed to come back and compete as graduate students,” Jarnigan said. “What we’re looking at is really the opportunity for some of these athletes to start working on a graduate degree even though they hadn’t planned on it. Once we figure out how to afford it, it’s going to be a win-win for our student-athletes and our institution in terms of enrollment.”

About 40 to 50 student-athletes paying partial tuition will have the opportunity to return for another year rather than graduate and leave like initially expected, and that based on a poll conducted by the department, more are expected to come back than not, Jarnigan said.

“Obviously there are some of our student athletes who have other plans after graduation and moving on, and we have some who really feel like they have unfinished business with the goals they set as athletes and now are looking at an opportunity to continue their academic career as well,” Jarnigan said. 

Jarnigan said SIU head baseball coach Lance Rhodes expects all eight of the team’s seniors to return for another year of eligibility. 

The Saluki baseball program was 12-6 so far on their season, including being undefeated (5-0) at home, before their season was cut short to efforts to prevent coronavirus spread. 

The NCAA announced baseball teams, the only spring sport with roster limits, will be allowed an increased roster size to account for returners and new recruits. 

Jarnigan said bringing senior leadership back to the programs affected by calculations due to COVID-19 will greatly benefit the department.

SIU softball had started their season off with a 15-6 record, including being 9-0 at home, while both Saluki men’s and women’s golf teams would have looked to defend last year’s conference champion titles. 

The Saluki track and field program had just finished second in MVC indoor competition and were also looking for success in outdoor competition as well before activities were suspended. 

Despite some winter sport activities, including women’s basketball’s MVC championship tournament, having been affected by COVID-19 cancellations as well, the NCAA’s decision doesn’t include such sports to extend eligibility for their athletes. 

Sports reporter Brooke Buerck can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @bbuerck25.

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