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Student athletes worry the coronavirus pandemic could put their scholarships at risk

CNBC's "College Voices 2020" is a series written by CNBC fall interns from universities across the country about coming of age, getting their college education and launching their careers during these extraordinary times. Colette Ngo is a senior at Chapman University double majoring in broadcast journalism and business administration. The series is edited by Cindy Perman.

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How Covid upended college sports and how they recruit

The coronavirus pandemic has upended sports seasons for high school student athletes across the country. Games, tournaments and training camps were all canceled. That has left many student athletes worried about their sports scholarships. How will college recruiters be able to see what they have to offer?

In a recent T-D Ameritrade survey, 47% of student athletes said they now believe the cancellation of sports during the pandemic could put their college scholarship at risk.

"That was my moment to have colleges watch me and it's canceled," said Devin Schoenberger, a soccer player at Redondo Union High School in Redondo Beach, Calif. "We don't know what other opportunities we're going to have and a lot of us aren't committed yet."

More than 180,000 students rely on sports scholarships to help finance their education every year, but the NCAA has implemented a recruiting dead period until April 2021; this means college coaches can't have face-to-face contact with college-bound student-athletes or their parents, and may not watch student-athletes compete or visit their high schools.

Plus, the NCAA also extended a year of eligibility for current college athletes to play their sport. Dan Doyle, Recruiting Coach Manager for Next College Student Athlete, explained that college coaches have a hard decision to make moving forward. College coaches grant scholarships based on the expectation they lose their seniors. If college seniors come back, the competition for a spot intensifies.

"We've already got a full roster of men's basketball with 13 scholarships at the Division 1 level. We could essentially retain all 13 of those kids and not bring in any incoming freshman this year," said Doyle.

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Due to Covid-19, states like California, New Mexico, and North Carolina are playing on a modified schedule. While other states like Utah, Kansas, and Alabama are playing with no changes to their schedule. Some student-athletes say the heightened competition makes them feel the need to continue elevating their skills. So, they're crossing state borders to compete.

"We actually just got back from a camp in Utah," said Noah Fifita, a quarterback for the football team at Servite High School in Anaheim, Calif. "I think that's one of the main differences of this time is just traveling to get noticed and get more exposure on film. We're having to make more sacrifices than other years."

Noah, Servite High School quarterback, throwing a pass against Villa Park High School in Villa Park, CA.
Photo: Matt Brown

The unexpected loss from the pandemic has also caused severe budget cuts for university athletics departments across the country. According to a survey by Next College Student Athlete, 30% of student athletes are concerned that colleges will cut their sport. And that concern is the reality for dozens of schools that have already eliminated sports programs.

Richard Southall, the Director of the College Sport Research Institute and Professor of Sports and Entertainment Management at the University of South Carolina, said university athletics are going to have to look long and hard at their budgets this upcoming year.

"Individual athletic departments are going to have to grapple with the issues of, why do we have so many sports? Why should a sport be a varsity sport instead of a club sport?" Southall said. "Colleges and universities are going to have to make decisions on travel budgets, and coaching salaries and equipment and all of these capital investments in new buildings and so on."

The college sports programs forced to make budget cuts are likely to cut the sports with less players on the team, like rowing, tennis and golf, Doyle said. Universities don't get the same tuition or enrollment benefits from those sports as they do with sports with a larger headcount, like football, basketball and baseball.

It's unclear when athletic scholarships will fully bounce back. Still, student athletes are hopeful and have been finding new ways to get noticed. Some ways high school athletes have been gaining exposure are through setting up Zoom meetings with college recruiters, attending livestream camps, and uploading skills videos online.

"I'm just trying to get as much better as I possibly can so that when I come back on the track and to the field, that I shock a lot of people," said Servite High School track and soccer player Max Thomas.

Noah Fifita stretching before an All Star football game in Bullhead, AZ.
Photo: Les Fifita

Coaches have also recommended that athletes explore other options for college — like focusing on academics or considering junior college programs so that they can play at the next level to transfer after 1 to 2 years.

"The biggest thing is invest this time on yourself," said Doyle. "Stay disciplined, stay working out. Stay on top of your game. Build your confidence so that way you can be in a spot where you can wow those coaches when things get back to normal."

Pete Najarian, a former NFL linebacker turned options trader and CNBC contributor who often appears on CNBC's "Fast Money Halftime Report," offered his advice to student athletes. "Be ready for the moment. Because you might not get another moment like it. If you can perform at a high level, because you prepared. You did everything you needed to do to be ready for that moment," Najarian said.

College sports scholarships and recruiting, as we know it, may never be the same in a post-pandemic world. But if there's one thing we've learned this year, it's that anything can happen. You have to be ready to adapt when it does.

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