Extra Eligibility Leaves Upcoming Decisions for Student-Athletes

This article originally appeared in The Fordham Ram in March 2020.

(With Dylan Balsamo and Alex Wolz)

As a country, we are currently in uncharted territory. 

With the rapid spread of the coronavirus grinding America to a halt, the NCAA has also seen repercussions. On March 12, college sports’ governing body canceled all spring and winter sports championships, including the men’s and women’s college basketball tournaments. Shortly thereafter, the Atlantic 10, along with many other major conferences, canceled all spring sports competitions, ending the seasons of thousands of athletes across the country.

In response, the NCAA Division I Council’s leadership group — a panel of eight collegiate administrators — said that eligibility relief was appropriate for athletes affected by the coronavirus outbreak. The full Division I Council will officially vote on the measure on Monday, with the proposal widely expected to pass. However, this has raised questions for many NCAA athletes, including those at Fordham, about whether or not they want to take advantage of it if it is approved. Most notably, many Fordham seniors will face a difficult decision: come back for a fifth year or move on to future opportunities. We at The Fordham Ram thought it would be appropriate to reach out to Fordham senior athletes to find out some of their plans. Beyond that, we simply wanted to hear the perspective of those who are most affected by the situation that has unfolded.

Ups and downs, back and forth, mass confusion, unsure whether to go home, go to practice or of where to go next. These were a few of the many emotions underlining the flurry of them that came to rowers Erika Selakowski, Brikena Prendaj and Julia Comerford upon hearing the announcement. For Selakowski, the moment came as a shock. 

“Honestly after being an athlete for over 15 years, you feel like you’ve been prepared to face anything that comes your way. Yet nothing can prepare you to hear the season that you worked so hard for every single day since the first day of school got cancelled … It was jarring and it shook me to my core.”

It was a difficult reality to comprehend, yet Selakowski cherishes watching the early morning sunrises, pushing limits in the weight room and competing with a phenomenal team.

“I love my sport, I love Fordham athletics and most of all I love my team beyond measure … the last three and a half years have given me countless memories, plenty of lessons, and the closest and best of friends.”

Because of this, despite the challenges of the moment, Selakowski looks back on her career in a positive light.

“I will forever be grateful to Fordham Rowing for shaping me and my college career in the beautiful way it did.”

Prendaj remarked on many of the same moments as Selakowski with a similar gratitude.

“As much as rowing drove me up a wall sometimes … it made up for everything in the little moments … We grew to love and support one another … we raced through blood, sweat and tears.” 

Prendaj acknowledged that this situation is about so much more than sports, with the necessary decision being made. Even so, she finishes her rowing career with no regrets.

“There is nothing I feel robbed of … we have achieved every dream and goal I could have imagined for us.”

Comerford focused specifically on her teammates and memories along the way, saying, “Facing something like this, like any struggle as an athlete, alongside your teammates makes it just a little bit better.”

Comerford adopted a more encompassing perspective on the situation, offering advice for future spring athletes.

“I encourage every spring athlete to share memories with their teammates and grow closer during this time because what makes a team is the people that are in it.”

Like many others, Fordham Baseball third baseman Matt Tarabek was devastated to learn his team’s season was canceled. “The part that got a lot of us emotional was realizing the fact that it will never be the same as it was before, and there’s a very good chance most of us don’t play together again,” Tarabek said. However, he is happy that the NCAA is granting athletes extra eligibility, saying it was “awesome news to hear.”

Fordham Baseball senior outfielder Billy Godrick says he was “thrilled” when he heard that he and other seniors around the country would be able to play next year. That being said, he’s skeptical that many of his fellow players will take advantage.

“My guess is that only a third of all seniors affected nationwide, probably even less, will use the fifth year of eligibility based on a wide variety of different factors such as tuition costs and job opportunities,” Godrick said. “There’s a lot of details that need to be worked out by the NCAA, such as scholarships and expanded roster sizes.”

Fordham Softball senior Madie Aughinbaugh was also happy to see the NCAA’s decision.

“I was relieved and so happy that my athletic career was no longer over,” she said. “It is a small win in all of this craziness happening right now.”

She also said she plans on playing for Fordham next season.

“I was planning on going to grad school anyways, so now I get to do it playing instead of being a grad assistant somewhere,” Aughinbaugh said. “Obviously, there are other factors involved but this is all still relatively new news and I’m taking it one step at a time with my family.”

Fordham Women’s Track Sprinter Mary Kate Caucci has not yet looked toward the future, instead expressing love for her track family that she has had by her side.

“Although losing my senior outdoor season was disappointing, I am incredibly grateful for the experiences I’ve had with my coaches and teammates.”

The idea of extra eligibility puts those like Caucci in a particularly interesting situation. Track, unlike most other sports, is not a single season program, as there are winter and spring events. How would the NCAA go about this issue?

Their solution was to grant seniors eligibility for both seasons, a decision that caught Fordham Men’s Track senior Sean Sullivan off guard.

“This decision surprised me because the NCAA historically has seemed to me to be very by the rules,” Sullivan said. “As a result of this decision, I am currently considering extending my education to a fifth year to continue both my academic and athletic career.”

While the NCAA has tried to remedy an unprecedented situation with unprecedented action, there are just as many questions as answers at the present time. From the NCAA’s point of view, this move is pricey, as USA Today estimates it will cost the Power 5 conferences between $500,000 and $900,000. A conference like the Atlantic 10 would likely be subject to similar losses. In the immediate future, though, athletes and coaches will still be reeling from the loss of the season. Fordham Baseball coach Kevin Leighton called March 12, the day the sports world went dark, the “worst day (he’s) had as a coach” in a tweet thanking his team. 

For spring athletes and winter teams whose seasons were not completed, the promise of a new year has gone up in smoke. There will be no winner at the end of the season. The nets will not be cut down. Spring athletes will not get their one shining moment. Tarabek, one of the baseball team’s senior starters, will always be haunted by what could have been.

“There will always be that ‘How good could we really have been this year?’ question that won’t be answered,” Tarabek says. “That is the part I think really began to settle in for a lot of us, along with not much closure and just kind of having to go our separate ways out of nowhere.” 

That reality has set in, not just at Fordham, but around the country. And right now, there are more questions than answers.

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