University of Maine women's soccer coach Scott Atherley is pictured during a game at Mahaney Diamond in Orono. The Black Bears' fall season has been canceled, but the NCAA will allow student-athletes may retain their eligibility to play next year. Credit: University of Maine athletics photo

The NCAA voted recently to grant an extra season of sports eligibility to all fall student-athletes in Divisions I and II, even if they play an extensive spring schedule in 2021.

Student-athletes on NCAA Division III fall teams also will retain an extra season of eligibility as long as they don’t participate in more than 50 percent of the games they would be allowed to play during a normal season.

Only schools in Divisions I and II offer scholarships to athletes.

“This is the best situation you can have given what we’re all going through,” University of Maine field hockey coach Josette Babineau said.

UMaine women’s soccer coach Scott Atherley also applauds the NCAA decision.

“This is a challenging time for the players, having to go through this. But this is a silver lining,” he said.

Fall sports for 2020 were canceled by most schools or conferences because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some leagues and universities are considering playing traditional fall sports next spring, but most of those proposals have not been finalized.

The NCAA also made a provision for student-athletes to opt out of participation due to concerns about contracting COVID-19. If someone makes that decision, universities must honor their athletic scholarships.

Seniors who decide to return for the 2020-2021 season will receive a waiver so that they don’t count against NCAA scholarship limits. Extra scholarship money will be permissible, but UMaine isn’t likely to be able to prove it.

“I don’t anticipate having any additional [scholarship] resources,” said Athlerley, whose team has 14 scholarship equivalencies.

Babineau conceded there also may be seniors who elect not to return for the 2021 fall semester.

In Division III, football teams are allowed to play 10 regular-season games. If a team opts to play in the spring, the athletes will retain the year of eligibility as long as they don’t play in more than five games.

“We have already told the [Commonwealth Coast Conference] that we aren’t going to play more than five games this spring,” Husson University head football coach Nat Clark said.

Atherley said the delayed season setup gives freshmen an opportunity to adapt to college life, academics and soccer for an entire season without losing a year of eligibility.

“It is a good situation in that we will be able to return everyone and still have an incoming class,” Babineau said.

For the seniors, returning in the fall of 2021 could give them a chance to work toward a master’s degree or take other courses.

“There are multiple scenarios where this is beneficial academically,” Atherley said.

Babineau pointed out that even though everyone wants to play next spring, there’s no guarantee that is going to happen. Regardless, the seniors know they will be able to return to UMaine and play next fall.