It’s Saturday morning, I’m here watching some college football, and once again I’m struck with the thought that a lot of those huge, 275-pound players are 5, maybe 6 years younger than me. Dang it, I’m actually getting old. But then, I realize that I have friends who are my age, are still eligible, and are currently representing their schools. How? And is this really fair? When I was in college, I was always a little mind-blown when we would have a freshman teammate – who looked like had just finished going through puberty – playing against an opponent who looked old enough to have a kid in college. I never really understood how eligibility rules work, so I figured I would try answering the question that has been in my mind for a while –is there an age limit to play college sports?
There is no such rule that establishes an age limit for college athletes. There are several rules that will determine whether an athlete is eligible or not, but an athlete will not be considered ineligible solely based on age. So, if you’re 30 years-old, your dream is to be a college athlete, and you’re reading this – there is a very small chance you might still be able to pursue that dream. However, first you need to make sure you’re eligible according to the following rules:
For Division 1 schools, the NCAA determines that a student-athlete initially has a total of four years of eligibility, to be used within a period of five calendar-years (with some specific exceptions). The five-year period starts counting once the student registers and attends the first day of class in a full-time program in a collegiate institution. It doesn’t matter if the collegiate institution is in the U.S. or not – they all count. So let’s just say, for example, that right after high-school I had started attending an university in Brazil. If I had stayed there for one whole academic year, according to the five-year rule, I would still have four years to use my eligibility in a collegiate institution in the US.
Divisions II & III – 10 semesters / 15 quarters
For Divisions II and III schools, athletes need to use their 4 seasons of eligibility within the first 10 semester or 15 quarters enrolled as full-time students. An athlete will use a season eligibility by either attending a day of class while enrolled as a full-time student or by competing for the school in an event while enrolled as a part-time student. If the student is enrolled only part-time and decides not to compete for a year, then no season of eligibility will be discounted.
Religious Missions, Armed Forces, and Foreign Aid Services
The NCAA will not count any time spent in the armed services, official religious missions, or with recognized foreign aid services of the U.S. government (Peace Corps, Military Sea Transport Service, etc) towards the five-year period. In other words, if you started going to college, then spent a couple years in the military or in an official religious mission, those years will not be deducted from the five-year period. An important note is that one cannot be enrolled full-time in an university during those years, otherwise they will count against the five years.
Academic Study Abroad Exception
In 2017, the NCAA passed some new legislation that allowed for student athletes to spend a full year studying abroad and not have that year count against the five-year period, provided that some criteria are met. This is a really cool opportunity that was not available when I was in college, and I would definitely take advantage of it if I could go back. I’ve covered this in more detail in my other post, so you should take a look at it if that interests you. Anyhow, in order for the year abroad not to count towards the 5-year rule, the following need to be met:
(a) The institution recognizes the student-athlete as a full-time student at the time he or she participates in the study-abroad program;
(b) At the time of participation in the study-abroad program, the student-athlete is academically eligible for competition and is not subject to an athletically related suspension;
(c) The student-athlete does not participate in practice or competition with the institution’s team and does not engage in outside competition while participating in the study-abroad program;
(d) The student-athlete satisfactorily completes the study-abroad program; and
(e) The student-athlete earns a baccalaureate degree within ve years or fewer.
Internship or Cooperative Educational Work Experience Program Exception
Similarly, in 2017 the NCAA allowed for college athletes to spend a full year in an internship, provided that the following are true:
- (a) The institution recognizes the student-athlete as a full-time student at the time he or she participates in the internship or cooperative educational work experience program;
- (b) At the time of participation in the internship or cooperative educational work experience program, the student-athlete is academically eligible for competition and is not subject to an athletically related suspension;
- (c) The student-athlete does not participate in practice or competition with the institution’s team and does not engage in outside competition while participating in the internship or cooperative educational work experience program
- (d) The student-athlete satisfactorily completes the internship or cooperative educational work experience program; and
- (e) The student-athlete earns a baccalaureate degree within ve years or fewer.
A female athlete may request a one-year extension of her five-year period in case of pregnancy.
So can I just wait until I’m 25 and then go to college?
One might feel tempted to just delay the start of their five-year period, so he or she might compete at the age of 25 or 26, when one is physically peaking. However, it’s not really that simple. In every sport except skiing, tennis, and men’s ice hockey, athletes have a limit of one year after their high school graduation (‘grace-period’) to enroll in a full-time university program. During that one year, they are allowed to compete individually or in a team and still have their five-year period (provided that they follow all the other rules).
After the one-year period, the student athlete will lose one season of eligibility for each year in which they participated in any organized competition. An example would be if an athlete graduated high-school in May of 2018, then decides to play in a certain league until December of 2019 (roughly one year and a half later). The athlete will be punished by losing one season of eligibility, since he played for half an year more than he was supposed to. An interesting side note is that if an athlete decides to run a marathon (or any other road race event) after the end of the grace-period, he or she will lose a season of eligibility in each of the sports of cross-country, indoor track and field, outdoor track and field, and triathlon.
In tennis, the grace-period is actually shorter – 6 months. In addition to that, another rule is that a student who participates in any organized tennis event after his or her 20th birthday – and before enrolling in college – will lose one season of eligibility. So, for instance, if a tennis player graduated high school by the age of 20, he wouldn’t be able to use his grace-period since any competition would have been played after his or her 20th birthday.
In men’s ice hockey and skiing, even though the grace-period is a whole year, the same rule as tennis applies but only after the athlete’s 21st birthday.
Taking these rules into consideration, we come to the conclusion that the only way one can go to college at the age of 25 and still have 4 seasons of eligibility is:
- If he/she hasn’t previously enrolled in any full-time collegiate institution;
- If he/she hasn’t participated in any organized competition after the end of the grace-period;
- Some exceptions can be made due to military, religious missions, and foreign aid services.
Oldest Player to Ever Play Division 1 College Football
After looking at all these rules, being a college athlete at the age of 25 or 30 sounds technically possible. However, in real life, what are the odds that it could happen? I feel like the NCAA wouldn’t allow for that to happen… right? Well, as I started looking for some real life examples, I came across this fascinating story: a 55 year old man that ACTUALLY played Division 1 college football. You can watch his story in this 2-minute video below:
Yes, in 4 years he ran a total of 3 yards. Not sure I would go through all the effort just to do that, but that’s still pretty cool. It’s more than a lot of people will ever accomplish. And, at the end of the day, it perfectly answers the question: no, there is no age limit to play sports in college.