Redshirt, in United States college athletics, is a delay or suspension of an athlete's participation to lengthen their period of eligibility. Typically, a student's athletic eligibility in a given sport is four seasons, aligning with the four years of academic classes typically required to earn a bachelor's degree at an American college or university. However, in a redshirt year, student athletes may attend classes at the college or university, practice with an athletic team, and "suit up" (wear a team uniform) for play - but they may compete in only a limited number of games, (see "Use of status" section). Using this mechanism, a student athlete has at most five academic years to use the four years of eligibility, thus becoming what is termed a fifth-year senior.
According to Merriam-Webster and Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, the term redshirt comes from the red jersey commonly worn by such a player in practice scrimmages against the regulars.
The origin of the term redshirt was likely from Warren Alfson of the University of Nebraska who, in 1937, asked to practice but not play and wore a Nebraska red shirt without a number. The term is used as a verb, noun, and adjective. For example, a coach may choose to redshirt a player who is then referred to as a redshirt, and a redshirt freshman refers to an athlete in the first year of participation, after a redshirt non-participatory year.
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Student athletes become redshirts for many reasons. One example is that the student athlete may not be ready to balance the demands of both academic and athletic requirements. Redshirting provides the opportunity, with tutoring, to take some classes and become accustomed to the academic rigors demanded of them. They may also redshirt to undergo a year of practice with a team prior to participating in competition. In American college football, a student athlete may redshirt to work towards increasing size, strength, and stamina; all desirable assets for many positions, as the current and post-redshirt years coincide with the final phases of physical maturity. Players may also redshirt to learn the team playbook, as many college teams run more complex formations and executions in comparison to high school teams.
Athletes may be asked to redshirt if they would have little or no opportunity to play as an academic freshman. This is a common occurrence in many sports where there is already an established upperclassman player in a position, or too much depth at the position the freshman in question plans to play. The coaching staff may also want to use the player as a starter later in their career so that they may play for the full four years instead of three.
A special case involves the eligibility of a player who loses the majority of a season to injury, known as a medical redshirt. A hardship waiver may be granted to those athletes who sustain a major injury while appearing in less than 30% of team competitions, nor can they have participated after the midpoint of a season. For the purposes of eligibility, players granted such a waiver are treated as though they did not compete in that season.
On rare occasions, players may be allowed to play in their sixth year of college if they suffered a serious injury that kept them from competing for more than one season. Former Oklahoma Sooners quarterback Jason White is perhaps the best known example of this; White had redshirted his first year, then subsequently tore the ACL in both knees, forcing him to miss nearly two years of eligible play time. Another recent example is former Houston Cougars quarterback Case Keenum; Keenum redshirted his freshman year of 2006, and subsequently tore an ACL three games into the 2010 season, which would have otherwise been his final year of eligibility.
The term redshirt freshman indicates an academic sophomore who is in their first season of athletic participation. A redshirt freshman is distinguished from a true freshman: a student who is in their first year both academically and athletically. A redshirt freshman may have practiced with the team during the prior season. The term redshirt sophomore is also commonly used to indicate an academic junior who is in the second season of athletic participation. After the second athletic year, the term redshirt is rarely used; the terms fourth-year junior and fifth-year senior are used instead.
In 2016, a new status could be applied to prospective student athletes, dubbed an academic redshirt. That year, the NCAA started enforcing new, stricter admissions requirements for incoming athletic freshmen. Under these new requirements, a student athlete who meets a school's own academic admission requirements yet does not meet the NCAA requirement of a 2.3 GPA across four years, may enter school as an academic redshirt. This student can receive an athletic scholarship and practice with the team, but may not participate in competition. An academic redshirt does not lose a year of eligibility, and may later take an injury redshirt if needed. Finally, academic redshirts must complete nine academic credit hours in their first semester and may then compete in their second year, free of restrictions.
Athletes may also use a "grayshirt" year in which they attend school, but cannot enroll as a full-time student, and do not receive a scholarship for that year. This means that they are an unofficial member of the team and do not participate in practices, games, or receive financial assistance from their athletic department. Typically, grayshirts are players who are injured right before college and require an entire year to recuperate. Rather than waste the redshirt, the player can attend school as a part-time regular student and join the team later. This is also used by players with religious or military obligations that keep them out of school for a full academic year.
"Blueshirt" athletes are those that the NCAA does not classify as a "recruited student-athlete". They have never made an official visit to the school, met with the school's athletic employees or had more than one phone call with them, or received a scholarship offer. Such athletes are walk-ons, but can receive scholarships after enrolling; although they are immediately eligible to play, their scholarships count for the school's quota in the following year. The New Mexico State Aggies football program was the first to blueshirt in the early 2000s; other football programs include Oklahoma State.
There also exists a "blackshirt" which is unique to Nebraska football, where the term redshirt likely originated. This a tradition, generally denoting a starter or otherwise key contributor on Nebraska's defense, and not related to eligibility.
While the redshirt status may be conferred by a coach at the beginning of the year, it is not confirmed until the end of the season, and more specifically, it does not rule a player ineligible in advance to participate in the season. If a player shows great talent, or there are injuries on the team, the coach may remove the redshirt status and allow the player to participate in competition for the remainder of the year.
The first athlete known to extend his eligibility in the modern era of redshirting was Warren Alfson of the University of Nebraska in 1937. Alfson requested that he be allowed to sit out his sophomore season due to the number of experienced players ahead of him. In addition, he had not started college until several years after graduating from high school, and thus felt he needed more preparation. The year off greatly benefited him; Alfson was All-Big Six Conference in 1939 and an All-American guard in 1940.
In January 2017, the trade association for college football coaches, the American Football Coaches Association, proposed a change to that sport's eligibility rules that maintains the current model of four years of play in five years, but significantly changes the redshirt rule. Under the proposal, medical redshirts would be eliminated, but redshirt status would not be lost unless a player participated in more than four games in a season. The proposal, which was unanimously passed by the AFCA subcommittees for all three NCAA divisions, was approved by the NCAA Division I Council in June 2018, taking effect with the 2018 college football season. The original proposal was to have been retroactive, meaning that players with athletic eligibility remaining who had played in four or fewer games in a given season would have effectively received one extra season of eligibility, but the final passed proposal was not retroactive.
Unofficially, redshirting in professional sports is mostly for medical reasons, mostly done for delaying their debuts. Blake Griffin won the Rookie of the Year in his second year because his first year was written off with injuries, but had he not declared for the draft, he would have been a college junior. Larry Bird opted to declare for the draft early in 1978, but decided to stay in college for one year to finish his senior year. David Robinson was redshirted for two years due to military requirements. Jerry Lucas, however, effectively held out due to contract disputes. All four went on to win Rookie of the Year in their first years of eligibility for the award. In the NFL, quarterbacks cannot be officially redshirted because they are unused backups that never started in their rookie year. It is the same case with other positions, while players can become 'redshirt rookies' for injury reasons, they are not eligible for rookie of the year/month/week honors.