A Return to Freshman Ineligibility?

By Jon Solomon | CBS Sports.com | February 13, 2015


The item was No. 7 on a 10-point list for NCAA reform ideas that Pac-12 presidents and chancellors sent their Power Five colleagues last May.

7. Address the “one and done” phenomenon in men’s basketball. If the National Basketball Association and its Players Association are unable to agree on raising the age limit for players, consider restoring the freshman ineligibility rule in men’s basketball.

Several conference commissioners say it’s time to consider making freshmen — or at least some of them — ineligible, again, for the first time since the NCAA rule changed in 1972.

One-and-done players in men’s basketball are the main reason some commissioners want this discussion to occur, and it’s not clear whether freshman eligibility interest would decrease should NBA commissioner Adam Silver get his way by pushing the NBA’s age limit from 19 to 20 years old.

“I’ve had conversations with several commissioners about (freshman ineligibility),” Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said. “We are pushing, and I think you will see much more serious conversations about it in the coming months and year.”

There are many unanswered questions, of course. Would scholarships have to be added and increase costs? Would all freshmen have to sit, or only those who do not reach an academic benchmark? Would this only be for basketball, or for other sports as well? Would athletic skills become rusty without competition? Is the idea only to better prepare athletes academically or is it to also integrate them socially? Does freshman ineligibility even accomplish one or both of those goals? Could this idea help repair the widening cracks in the NCAA’s model, which is being threatened by many sides?

The opposition to freshman ineligibility would be heated — and some conference commissioners strongly oppose it already. Others believe now is the time to consider it again given court cases that could allow players to be paid, Congressional scrutiny into college sports, and a unionization attempt to make Northwestern football players designated as employees. A new lawsuit against the NCAA and North Carolina attacks the heart of the NCAA’s stated mission: Are enough high-profile college athletes truly being educated?

Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said there is “almost a uniform acknowledgment that there’s kids in college that don’t have any interest in an education and don’t have the proper education to take advantage of an education.” Bowlsby said freshman ineligibility would have a “profoundly positive effect” on football and men’s basketball by easing the transition from high school without the distractions of competition.

“I think there’s a growing interest in a robust debate, and I think we ought to drag it to the ground and consider it any way we can,” Bowlsby said. “I think it is the one change that could make an absolutely dramatic difference in college athletics.”

ACC commissioner John Swofford said he has many questions about freshman ineligibility but believes now is the time to vet the issue.

“I don’t think it’s looked upon as radical an idea as it seemed to people five years or 10 years ago because it makes so much sense educationally,” Swofford said. “We’re in a period now where everybody is trying to get a hold of the student-athlete experience and a recommitment, if you will, to balance academics and athletics.”

Academic redshirt years are already coming for college athletes who enroll in 2016, when initial eligibility standards increase. The NCAA’s required minimum high school GPA is going to increase from 2.0 to 2.3, and high school athletes will be required to complete 10 of their 16 required core courses before their senior year of high school.

Players who meet the old academic standards — but not the new ones — can receive an academic redshirt. It’s a new version of the old partial qualifier with one important exception — the player does not lose a year of eligibility. Academic redshirts can receive a scholarship and practice with their teams but cannot compete. If they pass nine credit hours in their first semester, they can compete the next season as a redshirt freshman.

But that academic redshirt year is based on the NCAA’s minimum standards. Universities regularly admit athletes into school below their school’s own academic standards. This often causes challenges for some athletes that struggle to stay afloat academically; they are sometimes put into majors that may not help them once they’re done playing, and they can even become cases of academic fraud given the pressure to do what is necessary to keep players eligible.

The talk of freshman ineligibility appears to be particularly tied to “one-and-done,” the practice by which a handful of high-profile men’s basketball players turn pro after their freshman season. Scott said he prefers the NBA adopt an older age limit so basketball players spend more time in college.

On average, 10 true freshmen have entered the NBA Draft each year from 2010-14. A freshman has been the NBA’s No. 1 pick for five-straight years. Freshmen make up 36 percent of the NBA lottery picks in that same time period.

Freshman ineligibility “would do a lot to restore credibility and integrity to college basketball,” said Scott, whose conference is also studying the potential impact in other sports. “It would demonstrate they’re students first on those teams and they’re in class and getting grades that would keep them eligible. The reality of one-and-done is it’s not even one. It’s like half or three-quarters (of a school year) and done.”

National College Players Association president Ramogi Huma opposes freshman ineligiblity and said the idea would be a “PR move to defend a false notion of amateurism.”

“Talented players who may not want to be in college would be forced into an additional year of risking career-ending injuries just so the NCAA can try to convince the courts, lawmakers, and the public that its brand of amateurism isn’t a sham,” Huma said. “Alternatively, it should focus on reducing athletic time demands and investing some of the new TV revenue in degree completion.”

Pros and cons to freshman ineligibility

For decades, the NCAA did not allow freshmen to compete. Like most changes that have been made to college sports over the years, the freshman rule vanished because of money and for competitive purposes. Universities were paying rising costs for separate freshman teams and giving scholarships to players who weren’t even allowed to play on varsity.

“Keeping freshmen ineligible helped the marginal high school recruit adapt to college academic and social life before becoming preoccupied with big-time varsity sports,” former NCAA executive director Walter Byers wrote in “Unsportsmanlike Conduct: Exploiting College Athletes,” his 1997 memoir about his 37 years leading the NCAA. “More important, it was a significant deterrent to quick-fix athletics recruiting, the unbridled desire of coaches to reach out indiscriminately for high school seniors to fill depleted varsity positions immediately.”

In 1968, colleges first voted 163-160 to make freshman eligible for every sport except football and basketball. Byers wrote that proponents of the rule change knew they couldn’t win the vote if they included football and basketball, so they contended it was appropriate to exclude those sports since their seasons started before the end of a freshman’s first semester. Proponents also argued that athletes in track and field, gymnastics, tennis and baseball were generally better students than football and basketball players.

Byers recalled asking then-NCAA president Marcus Plant how long it would take before football coaches point out that freshmen are playing on soccer teams in the fall. Plant replied with a smile, “Well, I suppose we could argue that foreign soccer players are better students than American football players and don’t need a year of residence.”

By 1972, NCAA members voted to end what Byers described as “sound policy” of freshman ineligibility in football and basketball. The football vote was 94-67 and “a show of hands accomplished the change in basketball,” Byers wrote.

In the decades since the change, repealing freshman eligibility has periodically popped up. Legendary North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith, who died this week, often said freshmen should be ineligible and have to prove themselves as a student first before they have the privilege of playing basketball.

But today, freshmen have taken on a significant and accepted role in college sports, particularly the high-profile teams. Urban Meyer recruits football players to Ohio State hoping not to redshirt them because they’re good enough to play immediately before they leave for the NFL in three years. John Calipari, who wants to change one-and-done, has nevertheless mastered the art and regularly rotates talented freshmen in and out of his program.

“Every time (freshman ineligibility) comes up, it’s fairly quickly dismissed,” Conference USA commissioner Britton Banowsky said. “There needs to be a really strong rationale for it. Right now, you have some students that are coming to college — in men’s basketball in particular — that have pro aspirations and want to move as quickly through the collegiate experience as possible. It might be an advantage that you don’t have student-athletes on campus who don’t really want to be student-athletes for their entire career.

“On the other hand, I hear people argue having student-athletes on campus, even if it’s for one or two years, enables them to be better-prepared people for life and they should have the flexibility to come back. A year of readiness without playing is not a bad idea so the student-athletes can be more academically plugged in during year one without distractions.”

Atlantic 10 commissioner Bernadette McGlade estimated freshman ineligibility would add 25 percent in academic costs, adding “at some point I think there’s a tipping point where there’s just not enough dollars to go around.” If an entire freshman class — or even just a handful of first-year players — sat, coaches would inevitably want more scholarships in order to have the same number of available players on their squads for competition.

“Another thing I don’t think people mention enough: It’s amazing the athletes do so much better academically when they’re in a season,” McGlade said. “When you don’t have this rigid schedule deadline, the mentality of an athlete is, ‘I’ve got all the time in the world.’ I know many athletes and coaches and academic advisors, they sweat it out when their athletes are not in season.”

MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher, who once wrote a dissertation on freshman ineligibility, opposes the concept and said it’s simply a way to attack one-and-done.

“It sounds really good,” Steinbrecher said. “I don’t think it addresses the academic issues people think it does. I think the literature and studies done show sitting as a freshman is not a predictor whether a person is successful academically by GPA or by graduation. Why are we making a group of kids ineligible for a year when for the vast majority of kids they’re academically prepared to be there and to play?”

Bowlsby noted the downsides of making freshmen ineligible. “There are those who say a year away from competition dulls the skills and that may be true,” he said. “There are those who say anytime there’s freshman ineligibility that an increase in scholarships would be essential, and that creates problems with gender equity and costs and the overall structure. It’s not inexpensive. You’ll have a whole class of young people that are not performing.”

Swofford, who played on North Carolina’s freshman football team back when freshmen were ineligible on varsity, said it’s difficult to have players take a year off from their sport competitively.

“In football, for instance, we played five (freshman) games and I think the longest trip was to Charlottesville,” Swofford said. “There was some competition and practice that gave you more focus on the academic side and to get adapted socially. It makes a lot of sense. The practicality of it is a bit of a different story, with costs in particular.”

Scott noted there are already many football players today who redshirt in their first year. He believes freshman ineligibility could assimilate athletes into regular student life but agreed it’s fair to ask why a freshman who is capable of juggling academics and sports would have to sit out a year.

“Is there some academic standard you can hit that would earn you the right to play earlier?” Scott asked. “Or is it ripe with too many complications and, some might argue, biases where it shouldn’t? It cuts to whether the benefits of a year of preparedness is more about making sure you hit an academic bar, or is it beyond that and actually about integrating into student life and being a proper university student?”

‘The average fan simply doesn’t care’

Gerald Gurney, the former Oklahoma senior associate athletic director and past president of the National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletics, has seen firsthand the academic realities that some athletes face when they arrive in college. Some get admitted into school barely able to read and stand two standard deviations below their university profile average for test scores and GPA, he said.

Now president of The Drake Group, an organization pushing for academic reform, Gurney said freshman ineligibility would be a step in the right direction. But he believes a rule change must be coupled with fewer hours athletes are expected to compete and a Congressional study examining the realities of the education many football and men’s basketball players receive.

The Drake Group proposes freshmen not compete for a year if they are admitted one standard deviation below the university academic profile average. Under the proposal, freshmen who sit would be limited to 10 hours of practice per week so they can be remediated academically.

“Let’s focus on the root of the problem, which is the under-preparedness of athletes, so let’s get them educated,” Gurney said. “Al Sharpton made a comment after the North Carolina (academic scandal) report came out of this being a racial issue. I rarely agree with anything he has to stay, but he got it right. There is a racial component to it and the fact of the matter is the African-American athlete in revenue-producing sports is getting a second-class education.”

The Kenneth Wainstein independent report showed more than 1,000 North Carolina athletes were pushed by academic counselors into a system of fraudulent, no-show classes that were used to keep players eligible. Students never had interaction with a faculty member in these African-American Studies classes and had grades assigned without considering the quality of work.

“Are we naive to believe this doesn’t happen everywhere right now?” Gurney said. “That’s just a sample. Academic advisors are doing somersaults trying to keep them eligible at all costs. At the same time, we’re punishing schools (through Academic Progress Rate scores) if they don’t keep them eligible. Adding to that we’re giving huge bonuses to coaches who do absolutely nothing for academics. (Louisville football coach) Bobby Petrino gets $500,000 for getting five points above the minimum APR. So you can imagine the pressure placed on academic advisors.”

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported last month the NCAA is currently investigating 20 universities for possible academic fraud, including 18 in Division I.

“It’s not just the North Carolina situation,” Bowlsby said. “I think we’ve got to take a hard look at online classes and directed readings and independent study because they’re just fraught with opportunity for abuses. You hate to not be able to do something for a student-athlete that others are entitled to do, but that might be what needs to happen.”

“Time demands” is the buzz phrase that’s going to be heavily discussed moving forward in college sports. Some leaders in college sports believe the NCAA’s rule allowing 20 hours per week on athletics is broken, partly because of so many exemptions that don’t count against the 20 hours.

For example, the rule doesn’t count athletes’ time spent traveling to competition or time getting medical treatment. Football games only count for three hours, not all of the time spent preparing for the game on a Friday and Saturday. In reality, NCAA studies have shown athletes spend more than 40 hours per week on their sport. Some players have said they have no time for jobs or summer internships.

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany testified at the Ed O’Bannon trial last June that “when the basketball season is over, we probably ought to just put a lock on the gym. If (the players) want to play, they should just go to a playground and go play, but they don’t need to be with our coaches for a month or three weeks.”

But time demands are tricky because athletes are competitive and want to practice their sport. “I’ve had those conversations with student-athletes and some will say, ‘Who are you to tell me how much time I spend engaged in whatever endeavor I choose to spend my time?’” SEC executive associate commissioner Greg Sankey said.

McGlade, the A-10 commissioner, finds it ironic that major football and basketball schools obtained more summer access to players very recently and now are saying shut it down for the month of July. McGlade favors deregulating the summer months, where the minimum rule for time spent typically becomes the maximum.

“I think you’d be amazed at how the honor system or instinct level balances everything out,” McGlade said. “Some athletes will train whether or not they have coaches around. I think everybody is becoming much more in tune about overuse injuries as it is.”

Freshman ineligibility would take the time demand discussion to a different level. The Pac-12 is pushing for it. Some other commissioners are open to the multi-layered dialogue, which will inevitably be heated within college sports.

“The problem is the average fan simply doesn’t care,” Gurney said. “They just want to be entertained and feel good about their school and keep the pretense what they’re seeing out there is real students. That’s nonsense. That’s not to say many athletes can’t get a good education. Most athletes can get that. The problem with college sports is not with the women’s lacrosse team or women’s tennis team. The problem is football and men’s basketball, and we have to come to terms with that.”


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