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Sun Belt commissioner favors extra eligibility for all spring athletes, not just seniors

Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, March 26, 2020

Sun Belt Conference commissioner Keith Gill has not ruled out the possibility of all spring sport student-athletes being granted as extra season of eligibility when the NCAA Division I Council votes on the matter Monday.

Some have speculated it could be just seniors who are granted relief from having their 2021 seasons in baseball, softball and other spring sports canceled as a result of the deadly coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

But as presidents and athletic directors from Sun Belt member schools meet to discuss the matter late this week, Gill suggests a more inclusive decision could be made.

More: Coronavirus prompts eligibility questions for many at UL

Sun Belt Conference commissioner Keith Gill addressed the coronavirus crisis in a conference call Thursday.

Sun Belt Conference commissioner Keith Gill addressed the coronavirus crisis in a conference call Thursday. (Photo: Tony Giberson/pnj.com)

“This happened to everyone,” he said during a conference call with reporters Thursday.

“And so as we think about it, I think the big (thing) is we’ve got to figure out … how to apply that. But I think it will be really hard to separate out just the seniors, when juniors and sophomores and freshmen are impacted just as well.

“So my gut tells me you look at that group collectively,” Gill added. “But I’ll be interested in how, where, we come out as a conference over the next two days during our discussions to prepare for that vote on Monday.”

The Sun Belt, of which UL is a member, must determine how it will vote on the eligibility matter and related issues Monday.

“As a general rule,” Gill said, “I think our conference is in a place where we certainly are going to look to try to provide some relief in that position.

“You know, those students have been through a lot, so trying to provide them an opportunity to be as whole as they can with regard to their competition opportunity is something that we are supportive of.

“Financially,” he added, “I think we are all trying to figure out what this all looks like.”

Related: Coronavirus could severely impact UL budget

In an open letter to Ragin’ Cajun fans posted Monday on Twitter, UL athletic director Bryan Maggard said adding an extra season of eligibility for spring sports athletes whose seasons were cut short “could result in an additional expense" of $400,000 to $500,000 for the school.

The $400,000 to $500,000 in additional scholarship dollars is “just an estimate related to if all of the seniors in winter and spring sports come back,” incoming Georgia Southern athletic director Jared Benko told reporters in a conference call Tuesday, according to the Savannah Morning News.

“So there certainly will be some hard decisions to have to make,” Gill said Thursday, “but certainly if we can be supportive of … student-athletes I think we’ll try to do everything we can to help them come through this difficult time.”

Asked by The Daily Advertiser if the Sun Belt will be able to subsidize any of unexpected scholarship expenses, Gill said the league first will have to figure out “where we are vulnerable from a financial standpoint” and where surplus funds might be available and then it can determine “how can we best serve our members with the money that we have.”

More: Maggard says Sun Belt suspending all sports was 'the correct decision' but 'disappointing'

Related: Cajuns athletic director's world flipped by coronavirus

Later Thursday, the NCAA announced that in response to the cancellation of all remaining 2020 winter and spring NCAA championships, including basketball’s NCAA Tournament, its Board of Governors “voted unanimously to distribute $225 million in June to Division I members to specifically focus on supporting college athletes.”

But, the NCAA also said in a news release, “Division I revenue distribution for 2020 previously was budgeted at approximately $600 million, with the first distribution scheduled for April.”

Gill wasn’t sure what decisions will be finalized when voting is held Monday.

Depending on what proposal is or is not passed, Gill said, the Sun Belt then will “make some decisions as a league.”

That includes whether the conference will have a blanket policy on how eligibility issues are handled, or if that will be left up to individual programs.

“I anticipate this will be managed at the campus level,” he said.

“I think the No. 1 thing,” the commissioner added, “is we’ve got to get the decision right, but I do think it’s important that we move quickly.”

That’s because student-athletes need “clarity,” Gill said, as they face personal decisions on how they will proceed.

More: Coronavirus will impact MLB Draft-eligible Ragin' Cajuns

Then there’s the matter of how team roster limits will be handled by the NCAA.

“I think they definitely will have to increase the team limits relative to the spring sports,” Gill said.

“If that eligibility comes for one year, two years, three years, four years, I’m not sure. But certainly … you would have to see some team limit increases to make that all work.”

Thursday’s conference call marked the first time Gill has spoken publicly since the coronavirus crisis, responsible for more than 1,000 deaths in the United States alone, took hold and since the NCAA canceled its championships on March 12.

“To say the last two weeks have been a bit challenging is probably the understatement of the decade, maybe even a lifetime,” he said.

“This really has been an unprecedented challenge, and we realize that it’s far from over.

“This pandemic is really unpredictable, and things change rapidly,” added Gill, whose conference is located in New Orleans, where more than 80 deaths have been reported. “We just don’t know how all this will play out. … We certainly know we have a lot to learn going forward.”

The Sun Belt did not cancel its spring sport seasons until four days after the NCAA said it would not stage championship events including softball’s Women’s College World series starting in mid-May and baseball’s College World Series starting in mid-June.

Related: Glasco wanted Cajuns to know how appreciated they are

More: New Orleans could run out of hospital beds in weeks

“Canceling championships and the spring sports season are decisions we did not take lightly,” Gill said, “but we had to put the safety and well-being of our student-athletes first.

“We recognize the adverse impact these choices would have on fans, coaches, our member institutions and our student-athletes’ athletic experiences.

“However, we knew they were the correct actions to be taken in light of our concerns for public health, the safety of community and our responsibility to work to slow the spread of this virus.

“From our perspective as a league, it wasn’t just the right thing to do,” Gill added. “As we were … thinking about the actions we needed to take, we really thought it was the only thing we could do.”

More coronavirus

LAGNIAPPE

Gill said the league’s 2021 conference basketball tournament still will be held in Pensacola, Florida; its canceled semifinal and final men’s and women’s games this year were to have been held at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans. … Gill said he wasn’t aware of any Sun Belt athletes or coaches who have tested positive for coronavirus. … One UL student has tested positive for the virus, UL president Joseph Savoie announced Wednesday.


 



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