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If Five Seasons of Competition Are Good, Six Are Better

Dan Wolken of USA Today has the story on Jimbo Fisher bringing up an old idea with a new twist:

Fisher thinks if players were given five seasons of eligibility, it would serve two purposes: Help younger players develop and reduce the pounding veteran players take, particularly with a season that has increased to 12 regular season games and a College Football Playoff that will require a national champion to play two physically demanding games in a two-week span.

Allowing athletes to play five seasons of competition comes up every so often. The last time was in 2011–12 when it was proposed for FCS football players. Proposal 2011–64 would have allowed FCS players to play five seasons of competition but would have prevented them from getting medical hardship or season of competition waivers. In 2004 there were proposals to permit five seasons of competition in both football (I-A and I-AA) and men’s basketball, with the football proposal returning in 2005.

Football has traditionally been the driver for five seasons of competition because more football players redshirt and stay for five years. In 2004 and 2005, the rationale was that students generally take about five years to graduate and academic eligibility rules are based on a five-year graduation path, so athletes should be able to compete for five years. In 2011, the sponsor of the proposal, the Colonial Athletic Association, also pushed the angle that athletes who are eligible to compete are more engaged with academics than those who are redshirting or taking a fifth year to graduate after exhausting their eligibility.

Fisher’s new wrinkle is to the tie five seasons of competition to concussions and player safety. Having all 85 scholarship players and all 105+ total players available every game could mean each player playing fewer plays. Then again, coaches might just get another year to use their stars without reducing the number of hits they take over their career.

But if we’re going to go to five years, why not go to six?

The five-year clock is such a old rule that the rationale is not easily available. My guess would be it has something to do with the elimination of freshman ineligibility and building that redshirt year back into the eligibility system. It might not be arbitrary but the stats cited in the 2004 and 2005 proposals seem like the only evidence to back up a five-year clock versus four or six years.

While a degree program might be four years long and most students take five years to complete it, the federal government and NCAA give athletes six years to finish their degrees before the cohort is included in the federal graduation rate and Graduation Success Rate. The NCAA awards scholarships to athletes who have finished their five-year clock but still have not graduated. The NCAA will even give an institution APR credit for an athlete who earns his or her degree eight years after starting college. Five years might have some value but it is far from sacred when it comes to a graduation path.

There are two ways to do a sixth season of competition. Both would give all athletes five seasons of competition. One option might be to make a sixth season of eligibility a reward for graduating within five years. Then athletes can stay (or transfer) and start a graduate degree (or possibly a second undergraduate program). The other option would be to simply give all athletes six seasons of competition. Academic eligibility requirements would not change, aside from maybe giving the athlete more flexibility in the sixth year if he or she has not graduated yet.

The upside is that graduation rates should go up since more athletes will be kept on rosters until they graduate. Having an athlete longer might also help with clustering issues. Six years of eligibility as a baseline also gives more time for remediation, especially for nonqualifiers or academic redshirts starting in 2016.

The downside is that more seasons of competition for each athlete means, all other things equal, fewer athletes who have an opportunity at the Division I level. There is also the possibility that more athletes take longer to graduate as opposed to graduating then moving on to graduate school during their career. A football-specific proposal would also immediately create a major Title IX question. More likely seasons of competition would need to be added for all sports, if not immediately than shortly after adopting such a rule for football.

If Fisher’s idea gets traction and reopens the debate over how many seasons of competition athletes have, that debate should not be limited by assuming the five-year clock stays the same as well. The safety claims need to be investigated and the academic benefits studied. But if the NCAA is willing to explore more eligibility for athletes, the conversation should include not just a fifth year, but also a sixth.

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