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Lombardo: The NCAA Needs To Step Up And Do What’s Right For Softball Players

(Photo by Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Imagine a world in which you have a four-year window to play your sport at an elite level and showcase your abilities on the highest stage. Now, that four-year window isn’t just four years along your decades-long journey in sport, but it is the four-year window to both become the best version of yourself as an athlete and set yourself up for a life after that window closes.

That’s the world that most women college athletes occupy, especially and including college softball players. For many of them, that window closed Thursday, more than two months too early.

Amid precautions taken worldwide over the recent coronavirus outbreak, several NCAA conferences either suspended or canceled their spring seasons outright on Thursday. In an unprecedented move, the NCAA announced the cancellation of both its winter and spring championships, including the 2020 Women’s College World Series, softball’s premier event.

The decision sent shockwaves through the softball world and left athletes, coaches and fans wondering what it will all mean for the college game going forward. Will the NCAA extend the eligibility of its impacted players? Will there still be 11.7 scholarships allowed on fully-funded Division I softball teams next year? How will committed recruits be impacted? Will a sixth or seventh year of eligibility be granted to current fifth- and sixth-year seniors?

The answers to these questions are unknown right now, but what is known is the drastic impact the NCAA’s decisions Thursday, and going forward, will have on the lives of thousands of college softball players, and women athletes in general, around the country.

Aside from opportunities to actually play the game that many college softball players have devoted their lives to, as of now, senior athletes will also miss out on their last chance to have exposure at the most visible level of the sport—the NCAA Tournament and Women’s College World Series—which could impact their lives after sports.

Due to the undeniable popularity of college softball on television—Nielsen’s 2019 college softball ratings were up 40 percent in 2019—a real opportunity will be lost for star power to be built, and thus, personal brands to be created.

Take, for instance, Oklahoma’s Lauren Chamberlain. The NCAA’s home run queen became a household name during her college career with the Sooners between 2012 and 2015, thanks to her home run heroics, record-setting performances and championship-winning seasons. Those performances, along with the stage she had on which to carry them out, shaped Chamberlain’s life after softball and allowed her to carry her legend on to other professional—and money-making—opportunities because of what she did in college.

Arizona’s Jessie Harper had a similar opportunity this season. Harper, a senior slugger for the Wildcats, had 76 career home runs at the time of the NCAA’s decision on Thursday, which is just 19 shy of tying Chamberlain’s NCAA record of 95. With over two months left to chase the record, Harper’s shot at making softball history was palpable.

But Harper won’t have a chance to tie or even break Chamberlain’s record, which could and likely will have a vast impact on her life, opportunities and money-making potential after college softball.

In the midst of a global pandemic that is impacting the world at large, college sports may seem inconsequential, but for the women athletes who will shoulder a unique burden in all of this, the NCAA’s decisions are paramount.

It’s time for the NCAA to recognize this and do what’s right for the present and future lives of its women athletes.

north georgia softball Photo by Joy Kimbrough_NCAA Photos via Getty Images.jpg

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