Commonly used NCAA terms that cause confusion!

A recent visitor to our Informed Athlete website asked me about the term “blue shirt athlete.”  He had been told by his recruiting coach that he would be a “blue shirt,” and he wondered if he would lose a year of eligibility because of it.

It was the first time I’ve had a question about it, and is a term that I hadn’t heard myself until recently.  So, with that in mind, I’ll explain what all these different colors of shirts mean (in athletic terms, of course!!) and how they are, or should be, applied.

Red shirt athlete – This is an old term that many of you have heard of, but is sometimes misunderstood.  When a college athlete is redshirted, that simply means that they have not used one of their four seasons of college eligibility.

With few exceptions, if a college athlete plays in even just a minute of one game or match against another team, or only gets a couple of tackles or at bats or a couple of innings pitched for their team during a season, they have used one full season of eligibility.

I regularly get questions from athletes or parents who wonder if they can still redshirt because they’ve only played in a limited number of games or minutes, or only competed in their event a couple of times that season.  In most cases, they are confusing this with a medical hardship waiver.

A medical hardship waiver can be sought by a college athlete (their school must do this on their behalf) when they have become injured or ill to the extent that they can’t compete any more during that season.  There are rules in place that vary between NCAA Division I, Division II, Division III, NAIA, and NJCAA, but the basic principle is the same to obtain the waiver.  The school must submit medical documentation to support the request for the waiver and demonstrate that the athlete wasn’t healthy enough to complete the season.

Gray shirt athlete– This term is used to designate a high school athlete who is delaying their initial enrollment in a college.  The athlete, usually an NCAA Division I football athlete (which is where the term began), doesn’t enroll in college in the Fall immediately after high school graduation, but will delay enrollment until the Spring semester.

The primary reason has historically been because a university doesn’t want to consider the football athlete to be an “initial counter” until the following academic year because they’re already at their initial counter limit.  NCAA Division I has a limit of 25 “initial counters” for Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) teams, and 30 for Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) teams, during each academic year.

Another reason (often for sports other than football) can be because the athlete wants to delay the start of their “five-year clock.”

Green shirt athlete– This term is new, but refers to a strategy that has been in place in college football for at least ten years now.  The term is used for Fall sport athletes (again, primarily in football, but increasingly for soccer, volleyball, etc.) who graduate from high school a semester early.  The reason is to enroll in college and participate in spring practice in their sport so that they can learn the plays, train with their team, and bond with their teammates before their initial Fall season.

Blue shirt athlete– The practice of “over-signing” in the sport of NCAA Division I football has been around for a long time.  However, until recently, colleges often worked through those over-signings by convincing a high school athlete to start out at a junior college and then transfer later on, or to delay their enrollment for a semester (“gray shirt”).

The “blue shirt” approach is basically the same as a “gray shirt” with one very significant difference.    Whereas a gray shirt athlete is delaying their enrollment at the university until the Spring semester, a “blue shirt” will enroll in the Fall, and attend as a walk-on athlete without a scholarship for at least the first semester.

This will allow them to participate in practices, and perhaps even play in games as a true freshman, and then get a scholarship later on.  As a walk-on during at least the first semester, they will postpone counting as an “initial counter” until the following academic year.  In addition, if they come in as a non-recruited walk-on, this may present some advantages as well if they will be receiving non-athletic scholarships such as academic scholarships, or legacy scholarships.

About Rick Allen

25+ years NCAA Rules Expertise, including Director of Compliance at 2 major DI schools

Former President of National Association for Athletic Compliance (NAAC)

Conducts compliance reviews and audits at NCAA Schools throughout the U.S.

Consulted with NAIA schools transitioning to NCAA membership status

Dad of a DI & DII student-athlete

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