A fifth year of eligibility should come with record restrictions

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Kate Walkup, Staff Writer

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Five competitive seasons to dominate, along with five off-seasons to improve statistically, immediately give 2021 NCAA winter sport athletes the upper hand when chasing down records.

While a typical collegiate athlete’s career ends after four seasons of eligibility, this year’s group of competitors has been granted the option to return for a fifth year. An extra opportunity to break a record, an entire season’s worth of games to rack up more stats, one more competition to etch your name in the record board. 

“We felt it was important to make this decision [in October of 2020] so student-athletes had the peace of mind to go into this season and compete,” said NCAA Division I Council chair Grace Calhoun. “They know they can regain that eligibility and have their clock automatically extended, so they’re not taking that chance on the front end if they choose to compete.”

The records NCAA athletes set this season should count for single-game and single-season records, but they should not count toward career statistics.

Does breaking a swimming record in the pool, documenting a record-breaking number of assists on the basketball court or extending a career number of points present an issue when considering a fifth year of eligibility?

In swimming, single-race records can be broken and career titles can be amassed. A swimmer could win five national championship titles, but the explanation for this would be simple considering the circumstances of this year. 

However, in a sport like basketball, single-game records can be broken, single-season records can be broken and career records can be broken. Basketball players can rack up stats throughout their career, which makes an additional year of eligibility questionable when it comes to record setting. 

“I don’t like [giving winter sport athletes a fifth year of eligibility]. If you lose your season, I can see that,” said UCONN women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma in an interview with ESPN. “If you say, ‘Hey, look, the fall sports guys, you lost your season. We’ll give that back to you.’ I can see that. That makes sense.” 

Take UCONN women’s basketball rising star Paige Bueckers, who has already set the single-game assists record (14) for the Huskies’ program. Bueckers has also already recorded the most assists for a freshman in program history with 146. 

The single-game assists record should stand without needing additional explanation because it happened the same way it would in any other year. Bueckers’ assists record for her freshman season should count for a single season record, but it shouldn’t count toward her career number of assists. 

Former Oregon women’s basketball great Sabrina Ionescu holds the NCAA triple-double record (26) for men and women and is the only player ever to reach 2,000 points, 1,000 assists and 1,000 rebounds (graduated with 2,562 points, 1,091 assists and 1,040 rebounds). 

Although Ionescu’s records may remain unattainable for future basketball players, granting athletes an extra year of eligibility could give them a greater shot of surpassing Ionescu. 

“I don’t think you should just do away with the whole season,” said Oregon women’s basketball coach Kelly Graves. “However, if any records are broken, I think they should have an asterisk.”

In a dual meet against UCLA in Los Angeles on Feb. 12, USC freshman swimming sensation Kaitlyn Dobler broke Olympic gold medalist Rebecca Soni’s USC 100 breaststroke record of 58.10, a time that had stood untouched since 2009. Dobler recorded a lifetime best of 57.71, the fastest collegiate time in the nation this season.

“I had a pretty good feeling going into the meet that I might be able to break it,” Dobler said. “I wasn’t feeling a lot of pressure because our coaches were saying that it’s kind of a free year.” 

Now with the sixth fastest all-time NCAA mark in the event, Dobler could potentially have four more seasons—instead of three—to better her personal best. 

“I guess the biggest difference is if a senior in their fifth year broke a record. As a freshman, I think from a record standpoint, it makes sense for it to count,” said Dobler. 

Dobler’s 100 breaststroke mark should stand alone since it was broken in a meet that would look the same in any given year. She recorded a faster time than any other swimmer in USC’s program history. However, any record set during an athlete’s extra year of eligibility should be denoted with an asterisk since it was achieved in a unique situation.

Single-game and single-season statistics should stay in their own categories. Like swimming records, career basketball stats that include the 2020-21 season should have an asterisk because this season does not count toward any athlete’s eligibility. 

Career statistics shouldn’t be counted for NCAA winter sport athletes during the 2020-21 season simply because no other athletes will have the opportunity to compete in a fifth year. 

“It’s certainly an advantage to play five years if indeed they do end up playing for five years,” Graves said.  

Other athletes may decide to train for the Olympics instead of completing four seasons of collegiate sports, or they may finish school in fewer than four years and decide to be done competing. 

Some athletes, like Satou Sabally who played basketball for Oregon, decide to go pro before they have completed four seasons. Sabally graduated after her junior year and declared for the WNBA draft. While she could have racked up more stats in a fourth collegiate year, she made the decision to forgo her senior season. 

The asterisk has been used in the past with other situations. For instance, Babe Ruth held the single season record for home runs in MLB with 60 in 1927. However, this was before MLB adopted the 162-game season instead of 154. In 1961, Roger Maris tallied 61 home runs in the longer season. Both Ruth and Maris have an asterisk attached to their records, explaining the situation. 

Another instance happened in 1986, when competitors started throwing javelins with a serrated tail, which made them fly farther. In 1991, the serrated tail was banned, which resulted in a five-year span of records marked with an asterisk. 

The 2020-21 season should act as a year for athletes to improve their individual skills, compete and strive for records. It should not, however, become an opportunity for collegiate athletes to rack up career records because they have a fifth year to compile more statistics. 

“How are you going to let somebody play a whole season,” Auriemma said, “and then give them another year?”