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Redshirt is a term used in American college athletics that refers to a delay or suspension of an athlete's participation in order to lengthen his or her period of eligibility. Typically, a student's athletic eligibility in a given sport is four seasons, a number derived from the four years of academic classes that are normally required to obtain a bachelor's degree at an American college or university. However, a student athlete may be offered the opportunity to redshirt for up to two years, which allows the athlete to spread those four years of eligibility over five, or sometimes six years. In a redshirt year, a student athlete may attend classes at the college or university, practice with an athletic team, and dress for play but he or she may not compete during the game. Using this mechanism, a student athlete has up to five academic years to use the four years of eligibility, thus becoming a fifth-year senior.
There are many reasons student athletes might become redshirts. They may redshirt to gain a year of practice with the team prior to participating in competition. In college football, a student athlete may redshirt to add size and strength prior to participating, since size and strength can be assets for many positions in football. As the college years coincide with the typical completion of physical maturity, using a year of eligibility in the last college year is generally more beneficial to the team and to the student athlete's potential professional prospects than it is to use the same year of eligibility in the first college year. Players, especially in football, may redshirt to learn the team's play book, since college teams typically run a greater number of, and more complex, plays than most high school teams.
An athlete may be asked to redshirt if he or she would have no opportunity to play as an academic freshman. This is a common occurrence in many sports where there is already an established starter or too much depth at the position in which the freshman in question is planning to play.
A special case involves the eligibility of a player who loses the majority of a season to injury. Popularly known as a medical redshirt, a hardship waiver may be granted an athlete who appears in fewer than 30% of his or her team's competitions (with none coming after the midway point of the season), then suffers a season-ending injury. A player who is granted such a waiver is treated for the purposes of his or her eligibility as though he or she had not competed in that season.
On rare occasions, a player may be allowed to play in his or her sixth year of college if he or she suffered a serious injury which kept him or her from playing for more than one season. Former Oklahoma Sooners quarterback Jason White is perhaps the best known example of this, as he had redshirted his freshman year, then subsequently tore the ACL in both knees, causing him to miss nearly two years of eligible playing time. A more recent example is current Houston Cougars quarterback Case Keenum, now the holder of multiple NCAA offensive records. His story is similar to that of White; Keenum redshirted his freshman year of 2006, and then 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 (second-year student) who is in his first season of athletic eligibility. A redshirt freshman is distinguished from a true freshman (first-year student) as one who has practiced with the team for the prior season. The term redshirt sophomore is also commonly used to indicate an academic junior (third-year student) who is in the second season of athletic eligibility. After the sophomore year, the term redshirt is rarely used, in favor of fourth-year junior and fifth-year senior.
Athletes may also utilize 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 his or her redshirt, the player can attend school as a part-time regular student and then join the team later. This is also utilized by players with religious or military obligations that keep them out of school for a full academic year.
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 high school, and thus felt he needed more preparation. The year off worked; Alfson was All-Big Six Conference in 1939 and an All-American guard in 1940.
According to 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.