Waivers give injured athletes an extra year of play

Pamela London

For many Division III student-athletes, finishing up four years of college represents the end of an era: the end of long road trips and the day-to-day grind of being a serious athlete. But what happens when injury strikes and takes one of those years away? How would you feel about the end?

At an academically minded school like Whitman, the vast majority of students graduate in four years. However, that is not to say that the college will not help student-athletes who were denied a year of competing in what they love: sports.

All collegiate athletes enter college with four years of eligibility to compete in a varsity sport. A student-athlete who suffers a season-ending injury or illness––thus losing one of those four years––can either sit out a year or apply for a waiver from the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). If the waiver is granted, that student-athlete will essentially get that year back and can play another year.

Fifth-year senior basketball player Anna Forge is one such athlete. During Forge’s junior year (2009-10), she tore her ACL and MCL and severed the lateral meniscus in her left knee. Because the team was only eight games into the season, she qualified for a Hardship Waiver. According to Forge, the decision was “a no-brainer.”

“Every conversation I had with my coach [Michelle Ferenz] after the official diagnosis was figured out included the phrase ‘redshirt,'” said Forge. “As a DIII athlete, not much is available for us after we graduate . . . I wanted to make sure that I used my full eligibility, because this level of competition might be the highest I ever get to experience, so why waste it?”

While redshirting is normal procedure following an injury at DI and even DII schools, student-athletes at DIII programs like Whitman do not take Hardship Waivers at nearly the same rate. One reason is academics: DIII colleges are much smaller than their DI and DII counter-parts and do not usually have graduate-level studies available.

Nevertheless, unless they are virtually done with all graduation requirements at the time of injury, Whitman student-athletes certainly have the option to apply for a waiver should they get hurt.

“The only time we would not pursue a Hardship Waiver would be if the student-athlete would be completing their degree requirements at the end of their eight semesters. The student-athlete must have courses they need to complete for graduation to receive any extension beyond their eight semesters,” said Whitman’s NCAA compliance officer Scott Shields.

More often, athletes choose not to redshirt after injuries because they have other plans for after their four years slotted for college life.

“[A]thletes have received redshirt status but have decided not to stay the extra year to participate in their sport,” said head athletic trainer John Eckel. “Some athletes choose not to pursue the redshirt because they don’t plan on staying in school for an extra year.”

Like Forge, fifth-year senior basketball player Jenele Peterson saw her junior year cut short by injury and also decided to seek a Hardship Waiver. And like Forge, Peterson’s decision was not a difficult one.

“The process of deciding to redshirt is a big decision, but one that was relatively easy for me,” said Peterson, who tore her ACL and medial meniscus just three games into the season. Peterson initially thought she could play out the rest of the season with a brace on her injured knee, but ended up saving that season for when her body was fully functional. “I decided that I wanted a full year of basketball where my knee and skills were at [their] best,” she said.

While academics played a factor in Forge’s and Peterson’s decisions, both have discovered that having an extra year at Whitman has actually helped, rather than hindered, in other areas.

After switching majors as a junior and needing more time to take pre-requisite classes, Forge found she was able to spend her fifth year focusing solely on her thesis.

“The Sociology department helped me plan out my new graduation timeline, and taking a fifth year to just focus on my thesis seemed like a pretty steady-as-she-goes pace, and I liked that idea,” said Forge. “I recommend it, actually, because right now I’m completely finished with class and all I’m ever required to do is work on my thesis, which is about a topic I’m really passionate about, so it doesn’t exactly feel like work.”

Peterson has also been able to use her fifth year to her benefit by finishing requirements for distribution as well as requirements and applications for Physical Therapy graduate school.

Injuries can happen to anybody, and for a DIII student-athlete can mean the loss of an entire year doing something you love. While applying for a Hardship Waiver may not be the most common situation at Whitman, student-athletes certainly have that option available.

“You only have four years of playing collegiate sports in your life, and I wasn’t willing to give up one year,” said Peterson.