Making Freshmen Ineligible On The Table

As had been expected, Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany has begun serious conversation regarding making freshmen ineligible for participation in football and men’s basketball. His well-reasoned letter is a proposal based on the goal of balancing athletics and academics.

When freshmen were made eligible to participate in major college athletics in 1972, the effect was immediate in the likes of Alabama linebacker Woodrow Lowe. It is a staple of college basketball, where one promising freshman on a team of five can have an extraordinary impact.

Moreover, the possibility of early playing time is considered the number one priority for a student-athlete selecting a college, and the promise of early playing time is a tool of college recruiters.

In his letter, “Education First,Athletics Second: The Time for a National Discussion is Upon Us,” Delany puts forth an argument for a “year of readiness” as important at this “critical moment in the evolution of college athletics.”

He wrote, “If we cannot defend—through an examination of actions and results as opposed to words—that education is the paramount factor in our decision-making process (rivaled only by the health and safety of our student-athletes), then the enterprise stands as a house of cards. Accordingly, the more educationally sound the collegiate experience, the more sustainable intercollegiate athletics becomes.”

Under his plan, athletes would still have four years of eligibility. Freshmen would be able to practice with their teams, though participation and travel would be limited.

There is likely to be a knee-jerk reaction against the plan from sports fans and even coaches, and particularly from prospective college players, but the merits of the proposal cannot be denied.

Delany did not offer his model as a proposal as much “as a launching pad for a national discussion...”

It’s also fair to say that not many prospects would have “the understanding that participation in athletics is incidental to a long term educational commitment,” particularly when he points out that unrealistic percentages of college football and (particularly) basketball players have the expectation of a professional career in their sports.

For many years the NCAA tracked the reasons that prospects chose a college with playing time, geography, facilities, etc. ranking among the top lures. Academics was also listed in the top tier, but a former football coach believed “they say that because they think they are supposed to.”

Unquestionably, freshmen have been helpful to college football and basketball teams at every level, though not necessarily in equal proportions. For instance, most of Alabama’s 2014 football recruiting class did not participate in games. Those redshirts meet part – not all – of the premise of the Delany proposal.

Alabama Football Coach Nick Saban has pointed out that early enrollees – and even those players who report in June for summer school (a situation made possible by a relatively recent NCAA rule that allows a college to pay for that summer school for first-year students, as had been allowed for returning students_ -- do have a leg up insofar as getting acclimated to college, getting ahead academically, and also benefitting athletically. Delany’s model would expand this to “a year of readiness.”

Delany’s model would not allow freshman teams. There would be no games of any kind and some limits on overall participation.

He acknowledges that the “one and done” basketball dilemma is overstated, but rues that a basketball player can pass minimum academic courses and have a full year of athletics participation.

Delany also addressed the problem of doing away with 25 football players on an 85-man roster and suggested an increased number of scholarships (7 for football, 3 for men’s basketball in his model). There would be a slight increase in the number of scholarships in some women’s sports to meet Title IX requirements, but his model shows an insignificant financial burden for colleges.

How would this affect Alabama? In football, not too much. Saban and his staff recruit well every year and rarely depend on freshmen. There are exceptions, such as a Cam Robinson at left tackle or punter JK Scott last year. Only a half dozen or so had playing time for the Tide last year.

It would probably hurt those schools building with the promise of early playing time, or even starting positions.

And it could hurt a basketball program such as Alabama’s in the upcoming year, when new Coach Avery Johnson is having to stock his team with freshmen.

Delany’s proposal hits primarily at academics.

When former Alabama Athletics Director Mal Moore started his ambition program of upgrading Crimson Tide statistics, the first project was revamping of Bryant Hall – the former football dorm – into an academics center. Current Athletics Director Bill Battle made a substantial financial contribution and the center is named for him.

Perhpas because of that –- and perhaps because of the commitment to academics by Alabama’s coaches – the Crimson Tide annually ranks among the nation’s leaders in Academic Progress Rate and in graduation rate.

Last year Alabama entered the bowl season ranked third among the nation’s top 25 football teams in academic ranking, produced by New America, a Washington, D.C., think-tank. Alabama led the nation with seven players who had already earned master’s degrees among the 22 college graduates on the squad (tied for first in the nation).

The entire letter from Commissioner Delany, well worth the time to read, can be seen at the following link:


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