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NCAA Gives Division I Baseball Roster, Scholarship Relief

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Relief is headed to college baseball after the NCAA Division I Committee for Legislative Relief granted a blanket waiver for the 2020-2021 academic year only. The blanket waiver includes these three important pieces:

 Eliminate the varsity squad size limitation (35-man roster)

 Increase the annual counter limit from 27 to 32 (players on scholarships)

 Renegotiate athletics aid agreements to provide less than 25 percent scholarship

“The NCAA Committee for Legislative Relief got this one right,” Louisville coach Dan McDonnell said. “With possibly 1,000 more baseball players in college next year, the right thing to do was eliminate the roster limit and expand the number of players on scholarship. Now, coaches can better manage their rosters while giving the players the opportunity to develop and be part of the program they originally chose.”

The elimination of the roster cap of 35 players and increase in players on roster from 27 to 32 come as no surprise. Both were specific prongs of the ABCA’s proposal to the NCAA last month, and sources, as we’ve reported, were very confident those two bullet points would be approved. However, the addition of the third prong — getting rid of the 25% scholarship minimum — did catch us a little off guard.

Getting rid of the 25% scholarship minimum was a separate proposal put together and submitted by the Pac 12 Conference. Some have argued in the past that the 25% minimum has created parity and allowed mid-major programs gain a significant foothold in our sport’s landscape. Others have had the train of thought of, in a partial scholarship sport, if a player is willing to come to my school for 5%, why can’t we take them for that 5% and spread the precious scholarship money around to other players? Both approaches make sense, but at least for a year, the 25% scholarship rule is gone. Programs will now have the ability to renegotiate scholarship amounts leading up to the fall and 2021 season.

“It allows you to have flexibility when moving money around on a 4-year contract,” UCLA coach John Savage said about removing the 25% minimum. “It also may allow you to keep a player on the roster that you would’ve had to make a tough decision about due to the restrictions.”

The only proposal that didn’t pass with the Committee for Legislative Relief originated from the Southeastern Conference. Not with the ABCA, but on its own, the SEC proposed that, for one year, the NCAA grant a blanket waiver for schools to allow up to 13.7 scholarships instead of the usual 11.7. The SEC getting that prong passed seemed like a long shot when it was submitted. After all, athletic departments around the country are doing layoffs, furloughs and some are taking pay cuts. Others are cutting sports programs altogether. As expected, that waiver was not approved. There was, however, some interesting dialogue around the proposal. One idea was that if a program offered 13.7 in 2021, they could make that up in 2022 by only having 9.7 players on scholarship, thus balancing things out. In the end, the Committee clearly didn’t think that possibility was worth the impending headache. Plus, increasing the counters to 32 and eliminating the 25% minimum for scholarships helps reduce this potential burden.

The two things to watch moving forward are the 32 counters and 25% scholarship minimum. The unlimited roster makes sense right now because we’re in unprecedented times. Some programs will have a load of seniors and juniors coming back, while also welcoming more freshmen than usual because of the limited, five-round MLB draft. There’s just no way for some programs to stay at a 35-man roster in 2021. The unlimited roster will certainly go back to normal in the fall of 2021. However, sources tell us that there’s momentum for permanently keeping the 32-player counters and getting rid of the 25% scholarship minimum moving forward after 2021. The ability to spread the wealth, so to speak, to 32 different players would be a win for college baseball. Stay tuned on both of those.

All of these waivers by the NCAA are a step in the right direction, even temporarily, for college baseball. The NCAA had already announced in March that seniors would be able to return and not count against someone’s scholarship minimum, counters or roster size. Now, programs have an extra buffer of protection with the unlimited roster, allowing more high school players than usual to show up on campus without having to make mass cuts to stay around the 35-man roster limit. There will ultimately be cuts this summer and certainly after fall workouts, but this at least eases some of the strain for coaches and players alike.

“In normal times, I am an advocate for smaller roster size but we certainly aren’t in a normal time,” TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle said. “Right now, this is a much needed relief for not only schools, but also the families themselves.  My favorite part of this is that our coaches were mostly unified on this, they asked for the help/relief, and we got it….which rarely has happened in the past so I am thankful for that.”

When the COVID pandemic hit and seasons were canceled in every sport around the country, along with the MLB draft being limited, the one thing college baseball coaches wanted was for the NCAA to view the sport as a separate entity from all the other sports — something that rarely occurs. However, the NCAA met baseball’s waiver proposals with open arms and passed all but one.

That’s progress.

Now, we brace for one of the most — if not, the most — talent rich seasons in our sport’s history in 2021.

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