For Accused Jocks, Athletic Regulations Complicate Decisions

As the roughly 125 students under investigation for cheating in last spring’s class Government 1310 come back to Harvard for a semester in which they may learn they have been suspended from the University for cheating, the varsity athletes implicated in the scandal must deal with an additional layer of concerns.

Many in the class, “Introduction to Congress,” were athletes—one student accused of cheating in the course, a member of the Class of 2012 who was granted anonymity by The Crimson because he said he feared repercussions from Harvard for discussing the case, estimated that more than half the class played varsity sports. Now, many of those athletes who play fall sports face the question of whether to step on the field before the Administrative Board rules on their cases.

National College Athletic Association regulations prohibit athletes from playing on a team for more than four full seasons. If an athlete were to play this fall before the Ad Board makes its decisions and then be compelled to leave Harvard mid-semester, the games that he or she had played would count as a full season for eligibility purposes.

The same is true for an athlete who chooses not to play although he or she is physically able. At non-Ivy League schools, players can choose to sit out a year without losing eligibility—a practice known as redshirting—but that is not an option at Harvard.

Therefore, if a student did not want to use this year of eligibility for what may end up being only a few games, he or she would have to take a leave of absence prior to the first game and come back to compete in a fifth fall.

Players taking that leave would have to do so before registering on campus to avoid running into more regulatory issues. According to the Harvard Department of Athletics Student-Athlete handbook, a student who takes a leave of absence after attending a class cannot return to the field until well after he or she has returned to school.

In nearly all circumstances, you will be ineligible to compete in the first year you return to Harvard,” the handbook reads.

The handbook attributes this rule to the NCAA’s progress-toward-degree requirements, which demand that every student-athlete complete a certain number of courses in the previous semester and reach certain checkpoints on the way to fulfilling graduation requirements.

If a student intends to take a leave of absence, the Ivy League requires an academic adviser to certify that “the student appropriately considered academic and career goals when choosing this enrollment pattern, that the decision was in the student’s interest regardless of athletics participation, and was made by the student, without pressure to do so from a coach or other athletics department staff member,” according to an email from Ivy League Associate Director for Communications Scottie Rodgers.

Yet in an email to resident deans, Secretary of the Ad Board John "Jay" L. Ellison suggested that those deans should take students’ athletic involvement as well as their academic trajectories into consideration during their conversations with students implicated in the cheating scandal. “Fall term athletes may also want to consider taking [a leave of absence] before their first game,” he said in the email.

Athletes do commonly retain eligibility even after starting a season, via medical waiver. To qualify for another year of eligibility, the athlete must sustain the injury before the 30 percent mark in the season and a doctor must verify that the athlete has an injury that is too severe for him or her to return to the field for the remainder of the season.

—Staff writer Jacob D. H. Feldman can be reached at jacobfeldman@college.harvard.edu.

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