Three weeks ago, the NCAA made the landmark decision to grant its member schools the ability to extend eligibility by one year to spring sport athletes whose seasons were cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic. On April 2, member schools of the Ivy League reaffirmed their policy prohibiting graduate students from competing in athletics — but leaving open to undergraduate athletes the opportunity to withdraw in a bid to preserve a fifth year of eligibility. Then, yesterday, on April 9, Princeton decided to close that door too. Despite the NCAA’s allowances, the University will not grant eligibility waivers next year to student-athletes who withdraw this spring. Harvard and Yale made the same announcement; the rest of the Ivy League will likely follow suit in the coming days.
We, a group of current Princeton student-athletes, are writing to express our deep disappointment with the University’s decision. We come from different backgrounds, represent different classes, and play on different sports teams. Many of us occupy leadership roles within the Athletics community; most of us will return to Princeton next year to compete. We are speaking under the condition of anonymity because we are concerned a public statement could jeopardize our athletic futures.
Before we continue, we would like to make clear that we are immensely grateful for the opportunities and privileges we have been given as members of Princeton Athletics and the greater University community. Princeton Athletics and the University have changed each of our lives for the better — something we recognize as we write this, and something for which we will always be thankful. Each and every one of us is proud to be a Tiger.
That being said, we believe the University’s choice not to allow senior spring-sport student-athletes to return for their final competition seasons is the incorrect one. We understand that allowing all classes of spring-sport athletes to return for an extra year could strain resources. But we believe the opportunity for current seniors to finish their spring seasons next year at Princeton is feasible — and a chance the Class of 2020 should have been afforded. We write with the hope that this opportunity is not yet lost. We write with the hope that the University will align itself with the NCAA and reconsider its decision.
The decision not to grant eligibility relief has been explained as being “consistent with Ivy League Principles” mandating that its student-athletes graduate after four years at their respective institutions. But we question that explanation. Student-athletes who had planned to take advantage of the NCAA’s eligibility relief policy were planning to withdraw from this academic semester at Princeton and return next year — effectively graduating after four years and eight semesters of academic study, in accordance with Ivy League guidelines.
Additionally, there is extensive precedent for Ivy League student-athletes graduating in four non-consecutive years. Many have taken semesters or years off for reasons as varied as injury, mental health, or Olympic dreams. Some might say those student-athletes are different because they redshirted a full season. But at the outset of their season, this year’s senior spring-sport student-athletes could not have foreseen the COVID-19 pandemic; they did not have the luxury of taking the traditional redshirt route. That is precisely why, after spring seasons were unexpectedly and heartbreakingly cancelled, the NCAA opened up the blanket option of eligibility relief.
The explanation provided to student-athletes also implies Ivy League and University traditions are preventing senior spring-sport athletes from returning. We acknowledge that tradition is important — any member of the University community who has met alumni, attended Reunions, or benefited from the Friends of Princeton Athletics program understands that.
Yet we are living in a truly extraordinary, unprecedented time in world history. Time and again over the past few weeks, the University has broken with tradition in order to best serve its community. The pass/D/fail option has been extended to all spring courses. Undergraduate research has ground to a halt; senior theses can be submitted with incomplete sections. Reunions have been canceled for the first time since World War II. In light of these decisions, it’s hard to accept that athletic eligibility is an issue on which we must hew to tradition.
We do not just question the reasoning behind the Princeton’s decision. We also feel that senior spring-sport student-athletes have been let down by the University administration throughout this process. Nearly every student at Princeton is passionate about an extracurricular — and no extracurricular is governed to the same extent that we are through the NCAA. We are uniquely restricted in how much time we can spend on the sport we love, what we’re allowed to post on social networking sites, and how we interact with the media. Even our names and likenesses do not fully belong to us.
The NCAA is not perfect. But their March 30 decision gave us the chance to be treated like every other undergraduate: allowed to return to our schools and our extracurriculars for another on-campus season if we wanted. Princeton has taken away that choice. A senior in an orchestra, a club sport, or a theater group could decide tomorrow that they wanted a last chance to participate in their activity. They could freely withdraw from Princeton for the semester and return next year. Only we — spring-sport student-athletes — do not have that opportunity. By telling senior student-athletes we cannot come back to the University and compete next spring, Princeton has singled us out from the rest of the student body.
No senior would take lightly the decision to withdraw this semester — to have their class graduate without them, to delay post-graduation plans, to incur additional financial obligation. Every senior student-athlete would likely weigh this decision carefully. Most would not choose to withdraw, choosing to graduate on time in 2020 rather than play one more season in the spring of 2021. But every student-athlete should at least be offered that choice.
It should also be recognized that two weeks ago, after the NCAA’s announcement, a group of senior student-athletes were encouraged to declare an intent to withdraw pending a formal decision from the University. The student-athletes were told they would hear Princeton’s verdict in a matter of days. But that decision was delayed for two full weeks, and in the meantime those student-athletes have sat in academic limbo – reckoning with an additional (and entirely avoidable) stressor in an already traumatic time.
We understand that many of the events that have happened since the beginning of March have forced the University’s hand. Princeton had no choice other than to have most students move out, to transition classes online, and to cancel athletic events through the end of the spring term. All of these decisions became necessary as the gravity of the pandemic became clear.
The decision by the University to restrict athletic eligibility stands out as a choice rather than a necessity. And, unlike many of those necessary decisions, we believe time will prove this choice misguided.
The Ivy League recently changed their slogan to “Unrivaled Experience,” and we can affirm the motto’s truth firsthand. We know that even among the rest of the Ivy League, the student-athlete experience at Princeton is a special one. And we have been proud to play for a university and a conference renowned for achieving excellence both on the field and in the classroom.
Normally, Princeton and the Ivy League stand out from the NCAA for the right reasons. Today, they stand out for the wrong ones.
In light of consequences that student-athletes could face for publishing this editorial, the authors have been granted anonymity.