CBC S1 E8: COVID Casts a Long Shadow Over Sports Scholarships

Nov 15, 2020

Credit Melissa Rabell-Piñeiro

College careers delayed, hopes dashed. Midwestern high school athletes now have a much higher mountain to climb to get that D1 scholarship.

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The passion and drive to excel are instilled early on, and for some, athletics is their golden ticket to getting an education. NCAA schools award about $3.5 billion in athletic scholarships every year to over 180,000 student-athletes.

When COVID hit, sports weren’t immune. High schoolers looking to continue their athletic careers in college are still feeling the pressure and uncertainty as they look to find their college homes.

Braden Vinyard is a current senior baseball player at McCracken County High School in Kentucky. 

He says, "One mindset that really got me off track was I always thought that I could go D1 for sure out of high school. And I’m coming to the realization now that it’s just, I don’t think it’s a possibility anymore because of COVID. I need to get my head straight and keep on working forward.

Vinyard started his collee search looking to play at the division one level, but now realizes his options are limited to playing at a junior college. 

He continued, "Most of my friends and family knew I could do it which is kind of hard because I’ve always had that in my head. That’s what I’ve worked for, for the past two years really. Hearing people say that it’s probably a slim chance now took me a while to get over. But now I’ve just got to focus on keep moving forward and go achieve that dream in the next year or two."

Coaches have felt the impact COVID has had on recruitment, too. Andrew Basler is Division one track and field coach at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. 

He says, "We are getting a lot more emails asking about opportunities here. And there’s a lot of emails that I’ve got to kind of have to say unfortunately like your sophomore marks or sophomore times fall a little bit short of what we are looking for, you know but keep us updated you know as you have your senior season to see kind of where you’re at. So I feel like there’s going to be a lot of lost opportunities probably from a division one level to where those student athletes might have developed to that caliber but now are now forced to look more division 2 or division 3."

It’s not only the athletes that rely on college sports to defray costs. Jewell Miller’s plan has always been to cheer at a Division I school and have her room and board paid that way. She said most people understand that last year’s seniors didn’t get the graduation they deserve, but those in the class of 2021 don’t get an entire senior year of normalcy. She noted that last year’s seniors had already committed to a university before the stay at home order was put in place and that this year’s seniors have to completely restructure not only their college plans but what she says feels like their entire futures are up in the air because of COVID.

Coach Basler gets that.

He said, “We are rolling the dice a little bit and I think student athletes that are looking for a college home and a track program next year are kind of rolling the dice too, as far as, they know they don’t have those junior year marks that are typically the big year for them from a recruitment standpoint. It’s a bit more calculated risk this year”

Brooke Jackson, a Mount Vernon High School senior volleyball player from Mount Vernon, Indiana, was on the receiving end of one of those offers during the pandemic. She’s the type of athlete who coach Basler might consider an example of one of those ‘calculated risks’.

She says, "I’m thankful I was already in contact with Miami, and then we continued being in contact and even though they couldn’t watch me play I sent a bunch of highlights and game film for them, so that’s how we basically used communication through that and that’s how they watched me through old film from the past year. So they decided they wanted me to play on their team and I was just so grateful that they kind of took a risk because they never watched me play in person. They just watched videos.”

Brooke committed to playing volleyball at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio on April 14th, but a pandemic thrown in the mix certainly wasn’t in her game plan.

She said, "I think a little bit was a mental roadblock. It was more of a mental challenge, along with physical. Because it’s definitely hard to try to get through this knowing that a bunch of odds are against you. Me knowing I had to commit, or that I wanted to commit this year was really important. It was a goal of mine and COVID really got in the way of that."

As COVID-19 cases skyrocketed earlier this year in the Midwest, student athletes were left without tournaments, games, and practices. Athletes watched helplessly as their opportunities to gain exposure to college coaches diminished.

Brooke Jackson, the Mt. Vernon volleyball player said, "It’s definitely been like a rollercoaster ride of emotions, because first of all when it happened I was super stressed out and I was super anxious and worried that I wouldn’t get to be able to commit this year because of everything. Then, I really got closer and in touch more with the Miami staff and I loved it up there and things. And when they offered me it was like a bunch of relief like a sigh of relief a weight off my shoulders because I was able to know like I committed to a place that I loved to go to and I know other people didn’t get that opportunity. And for me after that, I feel like I’ve relaxed a little bit, especially in my senior year I didn’t have so much pressure on me because I had already committed to a place that I wanted to go. It’s been up and down. COVID has been hard for us. We were out of school for a little bit but we still got to play in sectionals and regionals and stuff, so I’m thankful for that. It’s just been a rollercoaster."

And a rollercoaster it has been on both sides of the recruitment process. Dan Paulson and his wife, Kristi, run an elite travel softball organization, Premier Fastpitch, based out of Mattoon, Illinois and also coach softball at Parkland Community College in Champagne, Illinois. Dan was able to provide some insight into the recruitment process as it pertains to both athletes and coaches.

Paulson said,  "The recruiting process is big for coaches and colleges to choose the player but the player also needs to choose the college they’re attending and the coaching staff and the team philosophy and the culture. At the end of the day, college is supposed to be the greatest time of your life. So you need to make sure it’s a good culture fit, and I think that lack of in person communication right now is significantly making an impact on that."

That lack of in person communication between coaches and prospective athletes right now is due to the NCAA recruiting dead period currently in place until January 1st, 2021. Coaches are not allowed to meet face-to-face with a recruit off campus or do any in-person scouting. Along with the announcement of this dead period, the NCAA also has made major announcements in regard to eligibility of student athletes. 2019-2020 spring sport athletes and 2020-2021 fall and winter sport athletes were granted an extra year of NCAA eligibility. With this change in eligibility, the shape of rosters also changes.

Dan Paulson said, "So now you’ve got more student athletes that are looking to be in college at the same time, all while the colleges and universities are cutting their budgets because of COVID and cutting their travel allotment. So a team that would normally have 22 players might have 32 now with a smaller budget. So kids are going to get less of their education taken care of or I would say more of maybe less of an experience."

Today, over 180,000 NCAA student athletes are on scholarship. Scholarships not only reward the hard work and skill of the student, but also are the key to a better future for many student athletes. These scholarships provide access to higher education, an opportunity some simply don’t have the financial means for otherwise.

Braden Vinyard, the McCracken County  baseball player said, "With all their seniors coming back and all their freshmen coming in. It’s like they’re having to cut twice as many kids, but they’ll have a full roster on their team. So there’s really no point for them to come recruit for the next class if all their players are still going to be there."

Brooke Jackson added, "So for me going in as a new freshman trying to compete for a spot and trying to compete for a starting position. It’s going to be that much harder because now I’m not just competing against everyone else, I’m competing against five year seniors as well. So that’s going to be tough."

Brittany Johnston has not only seen the impact of sports through her own experiences as a former student athlete, but also now as a coach. Brittany attended Kentucky Wesleyan College where she played both soccer and tennis and is now the current director of player development at Indiana Fire Juniors South soccer club. She says sports have always been more than just a game to her and that athletics play a huge role in our society and the lives of student athletes. As a coach, she sees firsthand every day how sports positively impact young athletes' lives.

Dan Paulson agrees.

He said,  "I don’t have the crystal ball to see. I mean COVID is certainly changing the world today so I don’t really know. All I know is athletics makes a huge impact on so many student athletes lives in all sports. It keeps them motivated. It teaches passion and drive. And the life skills learned from it are so important and so critical to the development and growth of our student athletes and to what they’re going to do in society."

For more content created by the University of Evansville Investigative Journalism Changelab follow the links below:

COVID-19's Affects on Youth Services Could Change Future for Students.

Prison Officials, Inmates, Healthcare Workers Reflect on Midwestern Outbreaks

Healthcare Screenings Fall by the Wayside to Detriment of Seniors