Coronavirus pandemic creating complications for Alabama's spring sports
The tears have been shed and the seasons have been heartbreakingly cut short. But what comes next? That’s the question Alabama’s spring sports coaches are trying to piece together amid the recent COVID-19 outbreak.
Alabama softball coach Patrick Murphy understands the NCAA’s decision to cancel the 2020 spring sports season. In fact, he supports it. However, that doesn’t make his job any easier.
The final image of the 2020 Alabama softball team, Murphy’s 24th since starting with the Crimson Tide as an assistant in 1996, is an impromptu team photo hastily snapped on March 13, the Friday before spring break. It was taken moments after spring sports practices and games were postponed and four days before the season was canceled for good.
Due to the circumstances, there was no time to suit up in uniform. Instead, the photo features a mismatched group of players and assistants huddled in front of the script A in centerfield at Rhoads Stadium — one last grasp at normalcy in an uncertain period in college athletics.
The same day, a different photo made waves on social media as Alabama senior pitcher Sarah Cornell posted her vantage point from behind the rubber, looking out on an empty set of stands. Her senior day was originally scheduled for the following day — a celebration that never came.
“You just,” Alabama athletics director Greg Byrne said before taking a lengthy pause, “you feel for them.”
Cornell’s story is that of countless spring sport seniors who had their college careers ripped away at a moment’s notice. However, the door to a possible extension remains propped open.
An NCAA council will vote on March 30 to decide whether eligibility relief will be provided to players affected by the cancelations. The NCAA has already granted all spring sport athletes an extra year of eligibility at the Division II level, and will likely take a similar course of action with Division I athletes. Although, even that decision would bring its fair share of complications.
During a teleconference with local reporters on Monday, Murphy said he spoke with each of the seven seniors on his team, all of whom indicated they would like to come back if given the opportunity. Should that happen, Alabama would have 25 players on next year’s roster — three over the current SEC travel limit and five over the NCAA limit for postseason play.
On top of the rule changes that would need to occur, there are also plenty of financial issues bound to arise. With softball being an equivalency sport, Murphy says his scholarships range anywhere from 22 percent to a full ride. Even if players are allowed to return for an additional year, many might not be able to afford it.
“It's just a, it's a huge kind of puzzle that you have to piece together that I don't think a lot of people realize all the little things that go into that," Murphy said. “And it would be 10 times worse if I was Coach Bohannon with the draft and people eligible to go to the draft, and just, that would be a nightmare. But I would most certainly welcome every single one of them back. And we would just work through all the issues and make it work.”
As Murphy alluded to, Alabama baseball coach Brad Bohannon has even more stress to deal with. Money issues are even tighter for college baseball teams who must balance 11.7 total scholarships among their 35-man rosters. Bohannon's roster doesn’t feature a single full-scholarship player.
“You hate for kids in college to have to make decisions on money,” Bohannon told BamaInsider on Monday. “I would imagine we’ve got a bunch of older kids that their first thought is, ‘Heck yeah I’d love to play, but do I really want to take out another 20 or 30 grand in student loans?' Those are tough, real-life decisions that our families are going to have to make.”
Unlike Murphy, Bohannon also faces the potential of some players possibly leaving for the Major League Baseball Draft, assuming it still takes place. The draft is currently scheduled for June 10-12 but is under threat of cancelation as the MLB contemplates ways for teams to save money to compensate for what will likely be a shortened season.
With the possibility of losing both high school and junior college recruits as well as juniors and seniors to the draft, college baseball teams recruit a wide array of players to help make up for those losses. Because of this, the absence of a draft would create overcrowding on most rosters.
“When you sign scholarships in November, you’re doing that with your best guess of who’s going to be back,” Bohannon explained. “If there’s no draft and every draft-eligible player on our team is back and every kid we signed in the fall is here, the math is not going to work for any Southeastern Conference team.”
Like Murphy, Bohannon has had discussions with his players about the future. However, without any concrete plans in place, the head coach says he’s taking a wait-and-see approach to the situation.
“It’s tough because as a coach you’re supposed to have all the answers,” Bohannon said. “You know, I’m getting a bunch of questions from our kids, and I feel bad because I keep saying I don’t know. But we’ve just got to ride this thing out.”