Last week, the Ivy League announced that it will allow its current senior student-athletes to compete as graduate students in the 2021-22 academic year, giving them the opportunity to take advantage of the NCAA’s previous ruling on the topic. For nearly every conference around the country, this would not be noteworthy, but as the nation’s most academically prestigious athletics conference, the Ivy League is different.
Historically, its eight institutions have not allowed student-athletes to compete in a fifth year or as a graduate student, even in the case of medical redshirts. As a result, athletes who redshirted a year have had to transfer elsewhere if they wanted to use their last year of eligibility. This is a completely different policy than that of nearly every other conference in the country. For Binghamton and its America East counterparts, student-athletes regularly compete as graduate students or fifth year seniors after medical redshirt seasons.
It is also noteworthy that no other Division I conference in the country has been as conservative as the Ivy League throughout the pandemic. It was the first conference in the country to suspend spring sports last March, and it remains the only conference to not resume competition in some capacity. This year’s fall and winter sports were canceled months ago, and no decision has been made on the status of spring sports. It seems unlikely that any Ivy League school will compete in any sport for the duration of the 2020-21 academic year, and that has been apparent for months at this point.
The decision is clearly the right choice for the conference, but it has come too late for many of its student-athletes. According to ESPN, more than 20 Ivy League men’s basketball players have already entered the NCAA transfer portal. Consider the cases of all of the nonrevenue sports. There are hundreds of other athletes that have known for months that their chances of having a season this year were slim but had no idea whether they would be allowed to return next year.
The NCAA granted spring student-athletes an additional year of eligibility shortly after the suspension of the 2020 season. Fall athletes were given an extra season last August, and winter athletes earned the same privilege in October, despite most programs finding a way to play a modified season in some fashion.
If the Ivy League had made its decisions at a similar time as the NCAA, these seniors would have had months to research graduate programs and consider their options as they make important decisions about their future.
It has been obvious for some time now that the Ivy League would not compete this year, so why did student-athletes have to wait in limbo to find out if their conference would give them the same ability as every other athlete in the country? The answer, it appears, is the history and tradition that the Ivy League is rooted in.
The conference has made it clear that this is a one-time exception, and not an indication of willingness to change the long-standing policy moving forward. While tradition and history are certainly something to be respected, the world is in the midst of an unprecedented global crisis and it is unfair to make student-athletes wait for a relatively straightforward decision.
Also worthy of consideration is the plight of last year’s spring seniors, which has basically become collateral damage in the current ruling. Last March, the Ivy League leadership likely did not foresee that this year’s sports were at risk of being canceled and may have been unwilling to throw away that history and tradition for only a small portion of its athletes. However, those seniors now appear to have been shortchanged.
With several one-year graduate programs available nowadays, including popular MBA programs, the chance to continue playing a sport as a graduate student could provide beneficial academic experience for student-athletes, in addition to making up for losing a season of competition.
While it is commendable that the Ivy League finally granted this year’s seniors an extra year to compete, the student-athletes of the Ivy League deserved that decision in a much quicker timeframe than when it was provided.