Coronavirus ended their careers. Now college athletes are fighting to get them back

The edict that Allison Wahrman had been dreading arrived Thursday afternoon while she was lifting weights.

A text from her track and field coach at Iowa informed Wahrman and her teammates that the NCAA would soon announce cancellations of all winter and spring sports in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

For the younger Hawkeyes, training for months with no payoff was devastating. For seniors like Wahrman whose college careers ended abruptly and without closure, it was something more. 

“It was heartbreaking, absolutely heartbreaking,” she told Yahoo Sports. “I only started throwing two years ago, and I was just starting to develop into an elite athlete. I still haven’t processed yet that I may have competed in my last meet.”

Primarily a triple jumper when she arrived at Iowa, Wahrman underwent ankle surgery after her freshman season and struggled as a sophomore. She picked up the hammer throw as a junior at the urging of her coaches, worked tirelessly to improve her technique, and discovered she had a talent and passion for it. 

When she first learned six weeks ago that a mysterious virus had spread across China, she had no inkling that it would soon jeopardize her final season of collegiate track and field. Only after the Ivy League canceled its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments Tuesday did Wahrman begin to grow concerned.

Over the next 48 hours, the virus wreaked havoc on her life, halting classes, then practice, and finally ending her senior season two or three months prematurely. She was feeling downcast and defeated until another text message arrived from her coach, this one encouraging her not to accept that her throwing days were behind her.

Take matters into your own hands, he said.

It isn't set in stone that this year has to count against your eligibility.

Making a petition would be a good way to start.

The NCAA outdoor track and field championships will not happen in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos/Getty Images)

The push for an extra year of eligibility

Meanwhile, across America, as the unprecedented news reverberated, gears began to spin. Coaches and athletic directors worked phones. They asked their athletes, across 18 winter sports and 14 spring ones: If the NCAA were to grant outgoing seniors an additional year of eligibility, would you be interested?

On social media, athletes themselves pleaded for another shot. Former pros and Olympic medalists joined the chorus. In interviews, coaches chimed in. Three nights earlier, East Tennessee State’s 30-4 men’s basketball team had qualified for the NCAA tournament. With it now shuttered, head coach Steve Forbes said, “I will make it my mission to fight for another year of eligibility for our five seniors.”

Athletic directors seemed to be on board too. “To our spring sport seniors: In time, we will fight to reinstate your final year of eligibility,” UMass AD Ryan Bamford tweeted.

As the calls crescendoed, Wahrman pulled up Change.org and got to work. She created a petition, then shared it with teammates and friends. It quickly spread to friends of friends and beyond. Across Iowa’s campus, and then across others. It ticked past 1,000 digital signatures, then 5,000, then 10,000. It began to feel like a movement. And that evening on ESPN, UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma gave it a prominent voice.

The prospect of recompensed eligibility, Auriemma explained, had been raised even before the NCAA went nuclear. “My feeling is this,” the Hall of Famer said. “It’s an unprecedented event. So you have to take unprecedented measures.

“You can’t say this year never happened, and wipe away everything,” he continued. “Because some teams had amazing seasons, incredible accomplishments, they should not be diminished, and shouldn’t be wiped away.

“In terms of each individual, I would be in favor of allowing all those that were seniors, that have not had a chance to compete, not had a chance to play their spring season, they should be given another opportunity to play. Regardless of what that does to your scholarship count. And the NCAA should foot the bill for that.”

One of the nation’s most influential athletic directors supported the movement as well. "I would like to see us look seriously at providing an additional year of eligibility for student athletes who have lost the opportunity to compete,” Oklahoma AD Joe Castiglione said. “Certainly that starts with the student athletes in their final year of eligibility. There’s not another way to get that back. I don’t know how many student athletes would come back and compete if they had an additional year of eligibility, that’s all speculative. But it’s certainly something we’re going to continue to discuss."

On Friday, Duke men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski joined the movement. “I would hope there would be some relief, at least for the spring sports, that people would be granted an extra year of eligibility,” he said. “That the seniors would be able to come back. Scholarship limits would be flexible in that regard.”

And as Wahrman’s petition ticked past 150,000 supporters, the NCAA issued its first statement on the matter. Division I Council Coordination Committee leadership, it said, “agreed that eligibility relief is appropriate for all Division I student-athletes who participated in spring sports. Details of eligibility relief will be finalized at a later time. Additional issues with NCAA rules must be addressed, and appropriate governance bodies will work through those in the coming days and weeks.”

In a memo to membership, which was obtained by Yahoo Sports’ Pete Thamel, the NCAA said it “would discuss issues related to seasons of competition for winter sport student-athletes who were unable to participate in conference and NCAA championships” – and that it would “work in a timely manner to make informed decisions.”

Is an extra year of eligibility feasible?

Some interpreted the statement and memo as a definitive decision. Many hurdles, however, remain. Wahrman is aware of this. Which is why she spent significant amounts of her Thursday evening thinking. An extra year of eligibility for deprived seniors would essentially mean five graduating classes for four classes’ worth of scholarships in 2020-21. Each sport has its own scholarship limit. Keep them as is, and you bar hundreds of incoming freshmen. Raise them, and your costs rise by millions.

“One option,” Wahrman says, “would be that they guarantee returning seniors their scholarships and it doesn't affect the people coming in. It would cost a lot of money, but I think it would be fair to the seniors."

And there is certainly money floating around college athletics. “The NCAA should pay for that extra year,” Auriemma said. “‘Well that’s gonna put us over the scholarship limit.’ Doesn’t matter, it’s a one-time exception.”

If the NCAA and schools cry bankrupt, a potential half-measure could be re-granting eligibility but not forcing schools to guarantee another year of scholarship. "That would be better than doing nothing,” Wahrman admits. “But it would be hard for those seniors who are on full scholarship. I think that option would prevent a lot of seniors from taking a fifth year because not a lot of college students have that much money to spend.”

Another question pertains to the juniors and sophomores and freshmen, some of whom were similarly distraught on Thursday. Do they get that year of eligibility back as well? If so, elevated scholarship limits would have to remain elevated for four years. If not, many would feel wronged.

These are the dilemmas the NCAA must solve. Whatever its solution, interviews with several student athletes made one thing clear: The decision must come quick.

Heartbreak and urgency

Diogo Brito (right) and Utah State celebrated a Mountain West championship and NCAA tournament bid on Saturday. Their season ended on Thursday without playing another game. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)

Some got texts, others calls. Some found out via coaches or teammates, others like the rest of the world did. For Maddie Karr at the University of Denver, gymnastics practice was ongoing. For Diogo Brito at Utah State, basketball practice was less than an hour away. On Saturday, his Aggies stunned San Diego State to win the Mountain West. On Wednesday, they’d been putting in new offensive sets for March Madness. On Thursday, Brito’s college career was finished.

Over the previous 48 hours, thousands of athletes had seen the avalanche coming. Karr and her roommates had chatted about the cancellation scenario late into Wednesday night. On Thursday, “it trickled in,” she says, reliving it all. Big 12 gymnastics championships were the first casualty. Hours later, NCAAs. And hours after that, speaking to Yahoo Sports, she was “still definitely in shock.”

“It’s the fact that your last time touching the field, or the equipment, or whatever, you didn’t know it was your last time,” Karr explained. “That’s the hardest part of it all.”

For months before her senior season, she’d grappled with uncertainty. As January approached, her surgically-repaired knee was still swollen. She questioned it. Questioned herself. Questioned whether she’d ever get back to being the gymnast she knew she was.

But she did. And she starred. Which made Thursday all the more disappointing, just like it was for thousands of athletes. At Utah State, Brito and his teammates gathered for an emotional meeting after the news came down.

“I still feel like I have gas in the tank,” he said hours later. “I feel like we still had a lot more to give.”

And yet his voice, jumping through the phone, was not gloomy. “We still are Mountain West champs, you know?” he pointed out. His college career, if it does end here, will have ended on a joyous win. His basketball career, he hopes, will continue as a pro.

Karr’s outlook was similarly rosy. Her junior season had taken her to a Final Four. Her final two months of gymnastics had been a resounding success. Her senior night, shared with friends and family, had been beautiful. Her post-gymnastics life, with a job at Deloitte waiting, is promising.

The choice between another year of college and a career, therefore, would be a difficult one. Both Karr and Brito, when asked about returning for an extra year if the opportunity were offered, said they’d need time to weigh their options. Yet they might not have much of it.

If NCAA officials truly want to help seniors who are interested in an extra year of eligibility, they cannot dawdle forming committees and subcommittees, as they're notorious for doing. They need to make a decision quickly, before athletes stop training, find jobs and move on with their lives. 

It had been mere hours since the cancellation of her track and field season, and Wahrman already felt stuck in limbo. She doesn't know if her athletic career is over; if she should lease an apartment for another year in Iowa City; if she should be hunting for a full-time job.

"It's really difficult," Wahrman said. "If I go on a job interview, I can't guarantee I'm going to be there for the next year if the NCAA gives me this choice. I think they at least need to make a statement soon to let us know where their heads are at."

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