Fifth-year athletes

Ally McAfee

Fifth-year athlete Austin Ewing (center) celebrates with the Whitworth student section, Sat., Nov. 18, 2023, after a Whitworth University football game against Chapman University in Spokane, Wash. | Caleb Flegel/The Whitworthian

The National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) allows students four years, or 10 full semesters, of eligibility to play on a sports team. The allowance for a few extra semesters if an athlete does not play all four years of their undergraduate program is meant for extenuating circumstances, such as serious injury or when national championships are canceled due to an unforeseen global pandemic as they were a few years ago.  

According to Tim Demant, the athletic director at Whitworth University, the population of past fifth-year students was comprised mainly of those that had been injured and forced to sit out a season. However, with the interference of COVID-19 regulations and changes in academics, that dynamic has shifted in recent years. 

Track and field coach Dr. Toby Schwarz said that in his 27 years at Whitworth, he has seen more fifth-year athletes than ever due to the pandemic. But now that the limitations have lifted and time has passed, the sudden increase in fifth-year athletes is slowing and is now influenced more by academic factors. 

Whitworth has been seeing an increase in the number of fifth-year athletes due to growing graduate programs. Many returning fifth-years are graduate students with a year of eligibility left over from their time as an undergraduate. Not all of the schools in Whitworth’s conference have graduate programs, so those schools are not seeing as many returning students. When paying tuition “it’s hard to justify sticking around longer unless you’re advancing your academic career,” said Demant.

“A lot of them got jobs, and then are doing their grad degree. […] They’re maybe not around as much, but they’re all people that were invested in our program,” said Schwarz. Returning to a team when learning a new schedule and routine takes dedication that demonstrates the challenges and joys of student athletics. “It doesn’t upset the applecart because our team is very close,” said of Schwarz.

Whitworth’s athletic program serves an important role in the lives of its student athletes. “It’s helping people reach their full potential and not just athletically, but academically, socially, and spiritually. […] Sometimes it takes them four [years], sometimes it takes five [years],” said Schwarz. The flexibility of eligibility and the increase in graduate programs allows student athletes to get the most out of the opportunities offered by the athletics department. 

A fifth year of involvement, whether it was gained through personal decisions or the effects of the pandemic, provides athletes with the chance to continue giving back to their teammates. “Fifth-years are great because they bring a lot of experience; they bring leadership,” said Schwarz. The experience and continued involvement of dedicated athletes allows them to reach their own potential, and help their teammates reach theirs as well. 

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