‘We’re seeing a ripple effect’: How the COVID-19 pandemic is changing college sports—and jeopardizing student-athletes’ dreams


How the COVID-19 pandemic is changing college sports—and jeopardizing student-athletes’ dreams

Student-athletes dedicate their lives to training, pouring their blood, sweat, and tears into reaching the top of their game with the goal of being recruited to play at a top college or university. For decades, there have been set standards, testing requirements, recruitment periods, and team rosters to fill. It was a process that was fairly predictable; that is, until Spring 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic brought those collegiate dreams to a halt for high school athletes living across the United States and internationally. 

It’s now been 13 months since the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I Council entered into a ‘dead period,’ putting a ban on in-person recruiting. While that ban will soon be lifted, student-athletes face lingering disappointment and challenges as they navigate the next steps in their athletic and academic careers. 

For more than a decade, Alex Proctor, student-athlete and placement manager at Laurel Springs School, has counseled student-athletes through the process of securing spots on highly competitive teams at top schools. He explores how the pandemic has impacted his students’ goals—and how it has created unexpected opportunities. 

What is the top challenge that the pandemic has presented for student-athletes?

The number one issue that has developed during the pandemic is more limited space on rosters that were already highly competitive. With extended NCAA eligibility due to the crisis’ impact on college sports, many seniors are opting to enroll for a fifth year in order to finish out their collegiate athletic careers. For incoming freshmen, limited spots mean that securing placement on a roster is going to be exponentially more difficult than it would have been pre-pandemic, depending on the sport and position. While the NCAA is allowing schools to add more slots, not all of them are making that accommodation. 

Has the NCAA ‘dead period’ brought any positive opportunities?

Absolutely. This year has been difficult on many levels, but there are new opportunities that students should be aware of. For example, at Laurel Springs we offer a Postgraduate Program which allows recent high school graduates the opportunity to improve their transcripts, build on their academic interests, and develop their time management and self-advocacy skills before setting foot on a college campus—all while continuing to train and compete in their respective sports. 

Transitioning from high school to college can be challenging even in the best of times, and trying to balance school and the rigorous sports schedule as a freshman can be downright grueling. During the postgraduate semester or year, students can pursue high-level secondary academics, such as AP and Honors courses, which may allow them to take on a lighter course load when they start their freshman year.

An academic gap year can also empower students to determine which career paths they are interested in, and their school or college counselors can help to guide them in that determination. It’s much easier to try a few classes and decide now, for example, that nursing or engineering may not be the right fit, rather than switching majors in college while also juggling athletic demands. 

While athletic ability and performance is considered when determining acceptance, it’s not the only factor. It is equally critical for students to demonstrate that they are serious about academics, and a strong transcript with clear collegiate and career goals can go a long way.

Should student-athletes take standardized tests, such as the SAT and ACT, even if they’re not required?

This depends, and it’s a decision each student should make for themselves when applying to schools. Students can also work with their school or college counselor to make an informed choice about the benefits of including SAT or ACT scores in their applications. The rules and guidelines around these standardized tests have changed over the past year; they are not required for students who are applying for the 2021-2022 school year and, possibly, the 2022-2023 school year. It is not clear if these tests will be phased back into the process yet. 

What advice would you give student-athletes who are approaching collegiate athletic recruitment?

The most important advice I’ve given is: Do not choose a school solely for its sports program. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that life is unpredictable. I tell each of my students to ask themselves, “If you were to break your leg and forfeit the ability to compete, would you be happy at this school?” If the answer is ‘yes,’ then it’s a good fit. If not, it’s time to explore other options. 

What predictions do you have for the future of college sports?

I have been doing this for a long time, and nothing could have prepared me for the pandemic-driven NCAA ‘dead period.’ We’re now seeing a ripple effect into, and likely extending beyond, the 2021-2022 school year. This is why it’s so important for students to have options and backup plans. 

Additionally, standardized tests will likely be reintroduced into NCAA eligibility guidelines and the college admissions process, but they may not carry as much weight as they did previously—putting more attention on transcripts. At the end of the day, colleges want students who are academically motivated and dedicated, and I don't see that changing.

To learn more about the Postgraduate Program at Laurel Springs School, please click here or contact our Admissions team at 800-377-5890.