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Nearly all sports-related college scholarships limit a student to four complete years of playing eligibility. However, there is an exception to this rule called redshirting. An injured or academically struggling player can elect to sit out of competitive play for a year, which still allows him to participate for the entire four years of eligibility. This player is called a redshirt, although he or she may wear the standard uniform and sit with the team during games or matches.
The origin of the term redshirt appears to be a missing piece of college sports lore, but the concept has been around for decades. In a real world scenario, a promising high school recruit may become injured before enrolling in college or disabled during early practices. If this player spent even one minute on the field during a sanctioned competition, he would lose an entire year of eligibility. The coach may ask this player to become a redshirt for the first academic year. This would allow the player to return as a sophomore, although in scholarship terms, he would be considered a redshirt freshman.
Another reason a player on scholarship might choose to become a redshirt is academic progress. Adjusting to a full college curriculum on top of responsibilities as an athlete can be difficult for some players. One way to relieve the stress is to become a redshirt for one academic year. Once the student has had sufficient time to shore up his or her classroom performance, returning to the team the next year may not be nearly as stressful.
A redshirt athlete is not restricted from the peripheral activities of the team. He can still attend practice sessions, team meetings and workouts, but he cannot participate competitively. In the case of a serious injury, a redshirt player would most likely spend much of her downtime in a supervised rehabilitation center. A medical professional may have to clear her for the next playing season before she is allowed to suit up again. Instructors can also place a redshirt player on academic probation if his grades fall below an established minimum.
The redshirt exception to scholarship eligibility can only be used for one academic year under most circumstances.
In the Late 1940's and 1950's, the old practice uniforms were a dull white and the defense were given red vests to show the difference.