February 12, 2021 

Ivy League announces temporary change to eligibility rules

Contrary to longstanding Ivy League policy, the conference will allow current seniors to compete as graduate students in 2021-22

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Ivy League seniors such as Carlie Littlefield have another option to continue their careers as a result of the league’s latest announcement. Photo credit: Mike Cahill

Since the initial shock of the Ivy League canceling its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments in March 2020, the league’s decision-making around the COVID-19 pandemic has been relatively predictable and consistent. The league canceled fall sports, then winter sports, and it did not join the rest of the NCAA in granting student-athletes an additional year of eligibility because of its rules limiting eligibility to undergraduate students.

That changed on Thursday when the Ivy League announced in an email to student-athletes and coaches that it had approved a one-time waiver for current seniors to compete as graduate students next year. The waiver applies to seniors in all sports and requires them to graduate this year and be accepted into a full-time graduate degree program at their university.

“In granting this waiver, the [Ivy League Council of] Presidents acknowledge[s] the unique impact of the pandemic during the current academic year across all three sport seasons for those students in their final year of Ivy League eligibility,” read the email, a copy of which was obtained by The Next. “This change is a direct result of the pandemic and will not be available in future years.”

The decision by the Ivy League presidents appears to have been a very recent development. In December, Ivy League executive director Robin Harris told The Next, “The presidents have confirmed on a number of occasions that Ivy League athletics is an undergraduate, co-curricular activity. And that’s a bedrock principle within the Ivy League.” Yet last week, according to The Daily Pennsylvanian, the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee presidents at each school “circulated a survey meant to gauge student-athletes’ opinions on graduate school eligibility, per the request of Ivy League policy members and athletic directors.”

Brown women’s basketball head coach Monique LeBlanc told The Next that she “was totally caught off-guard” by the waiver announcement and was not given any advance notice. However, she praised the decision because of the added flexibility it gives student-athletes to extend their careers.

“With all of the challenges that the last year has brought, I think it’s a positive thing that student-athletes are being presented with an opportunity,” LeBlanc said. “… They have a lot to weigh to make this decision, but I think it’s important to try to provide options for these Ivy student-athletes, like their counterparts around the country.”

Yet, for multiple reasons, it’s uncertain how many women’s basketball players will be able to take advantage of the waiver. Of the 23 seniors on Ancient Eight rosters, 11 had entered the transfer portal prior to the announcement, and two—Harvard’s Jadyn Bush and Brown’s McKenna Dale—have already committed to other schools. Another senior, Yale’s Alex Cade, took a year off from school to preserve her Ivy League eligibility, unaware that this waiver would eventually be offered.

In addition, seniors have to apply to, be accepted into, and pay for graduate school “through regular channels at their undergraduate institution,” according to the league’s statement. The Yale Daily News reported that the application deadlines for over 50 Yale graduate programs were in December and January, while the Yale Law School deadline is just days away. And at Penn—the school with the most women’s basketball seniors this year—the School of Arts and Sciences has a final deadline of July 15 for its graduate programs but recommends that prospective students apply by December 15 for full consideration.

The Ivy League’s statement added that there will be no changes to its financial aid policy, which does not allow schools to provide scholarships. Financial aid is limited to need-based awards, which leaves some students with out-of-pocket costs. As a result, seniors who are already in the transfer portal may decide to continue with that process and enroll in a school that can promise a scholarship.

As difficult as it was for seniors to stomach the news that their final Ivy League season was canceled, they may also remain in the portal if they are already talking with coaches and thinking beyond their current school. “I think it’s a lot for them to take in because mentally, they’ve shifted gears a little bit,” LeBlanc said. “… They’ve put themselves in a place of, my [Ivy League] career is over. And I think the human response is to find excitement in the next opportunity.”

That may be particularly true for fall sport student-athletes, LeBlanc said, because they may be farther along in the transfer process than winter sports athletes, whose seasons were just canceled in November, or spring sport athletes, whose 2021 seasons are still up in the air. In November, the Ivy League delayed spring sports until at least March 1, and a January email to student-athletes clarified only that, if there is a season, it will be “abbreviated, and likely significantly curtailed.”

As a result, it remains to be seen whether one, 10, or 20 women’s basketball seniors use the waiver to compete again in the Ivy League. But ultimately, the waiver is meaningful as the rare announcement during the COVID-19 pandemic that creates opportunities for student-athletes rather than taking them away.

Written by Jenn Hatfield

Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. (She also writes the "Family Rivalries" series for The Next.) Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats and FanSided.

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