The Big Ten is considering ruling freshman in some or all varsity sports ineligible in an attempt to create a year of “readiness” for college athletes.
Big Ten leaders are currently reaching out to member schools and other thought officials to get opinions regarding the changes, but have not made an official proposal. As more feedback about the topic becomes available, the Big Ten is expected to present its findings at the 2016 NCAA Convention in San Antonio in January with the hope of garnering a national discussion on the idea.
The decision would almost certainly affect football and basketball, and likely several others, if not all of the officially recognized varsity sports.
History: With the exception of the time period during which the US was involved in World War II, there was no freshman involvement in NCAA-governed sports. In 1968 however, the NCAA allowed freshman to play in all sports except basketball and football.
Four years later, the NCAA would overturn that ruling and deem freshman eligible to play varsity basketball and football, officially opening all athletic teams to first-year players for the 1972-1973 season and beyond.
Circulating the “White Paper:” The conference is currently pursuing a consensus on the matter of freshman ineligibility, although Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delaney is in favor of the idea, and said in a statement released to the conference:
“While we are comfortable generating multiple ideas about an ‘education first’ approach to intercollegiate athletics in the twenty-first century, we won’t go it alone on any of these matters,” Delaney continued, “We look forward to working with our colleagues in the NCAA Division I governance structure, and to exploring a broad exchange of ideas from both inside and outside of intercollegiate athletics.”
The Big Ten is actively seeking the feedback of those that the change would impact, inviting the input of athletic directors, university presidents and student-athlete representatives. The results vary.
Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz said that changing the rules of eligibility “would allow [the student athlete] to transition a little bit with a lot less fanfare and get their feet on the ground and get a good foundation established.”
Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Smith countered with, “I have not been a proponent of freshman ineligibility,” arguing that the challenge of preparing college athletes does not lie with the university, but rather with the high school education system.
According to the NCAA bylaws, a conference may adjust its standards for eligibility for any level of athlete; however, for the changes to be nationwide, the NCAA would need to amend its rules. The NCAA issued its own statement in regards to the matter, essentially giving the Big Ten permission to pursue the matter on its own and reaffirming that the decision, at its current stage, would only impact the Big Ten.
“The rules surrounding freshmen ineligibility don’t fall within the areas of autonomy, which means either conferences choose to adopt the policy on their own or the legislation is voted on by the entire division.”
The Argument: Now that it is apparent that the Big Ten is serious about pursuing this change, the question becomes whether or not this is a feasible idea – is this a serious possibility or is this best left in the offices of the Big Ten bigwigs?
Conversation about the decision is flying. Popular opinion among the masses of Big Ten fans seems to be against the decision. Many cite the fact that freshmen standouts are a huge draw to games and that quality of play in the Big Ten will go down. Other argue that this decision, if limited to the Big Ten, would drive the conference’s top recruits to other powerhouses like the SEC, Pac-12 or AAC where they could have a full four years of playing time, drawing profit and entertainment away from the Big Ten.
The Big Ten is arguing that benching freshman for their first year would force them to focus on their academics over their athletics. In the words of conference officials, this would be an “education first approach.” The fault in this argument lies in the numbers.
While many believe that the collegiate athletic program is a pit-stop for some athletes on their way to the pros, the NCAA released a study in September 2013 that shows that out of more than 460,000 student athletes, fewer than two percent will actually become professional athletes. In that same study, the NCAA also showed that student athletes actually have a higher graduation rate than their peers.
The Big Ten is also arguing that the transition from college to high school is difficult enough; why add additional stress to the players’ lives? This measure would relieve some of the time demands of practice, games and additional training, but it leaves many wondering if such a drastic measure is the best way to accomplish this goal.
While certainly no one argues the benefits of creating a focus on education while in college or removing some of the stress that these students may feel, many fans and athletes are urging the Big Ten to consider other options in its quest to remove the label of “minor league conference.”
Recommendations include allowing freshman to play but limiting practice hours if certain academic standards are not met, denying freshman eligibility to only those athletes who did not meet a certain standard of combined SAT score and high school cumulative GPA, or creating more stringent requirements for academics in order to remain eligible to play on a college varsity team. Several thought officials are in favor of a plan that requires athletes of any standing to take a year off from athletics if they fail to meet the academic standards set by the conference.
Still others argue that changing the rules will not affect the landscape of college athletics, citing that cracking down on the student athletes who are not serious about their grades may drive them away from pursuing a college education altogether, and will likely not dramatically change the number of one-and-done athletes, given that NBA teams cannot recruit students younger than 19 or less than a year removed from their high school education. Those that do conform to the one-and-done rule (typically basketball players) may view their year in college as a stop on the way to the pros, but statistically, less than one percent of players actually follow through.
Ultimately, the Big Ten may be tired of feeling like a placeholder for college athletes, but will changing its policies help or harm the students in the conference?
What Would This Look Like? If this is limited to the Big Ten, the collegiate athletic world will shift. Highly sought recruits would likely avoid the Big Ten altogether, given that they would only be able to play for three years. For a plan like this to be effective, the entire county must adopt this change.
The Pac-12 and the Big 12 have allegedly started their own talks about changing freshman eligibility, but have not made any official announcements.
From an official university standpoint where graduation rates and grades are of the utmost importance, eliminating freshman eligibility makes sense. It gives incoming students a chance to adapt to new expectations, to settle in to a new environment, and to focus on their education. The first year of college is stressful – deciding what to major in, finding new friends, and learning to live apart from Mom and Dad is harrowing, so removing the extra stress of playing a sport has merit.
The problem with this argument is that the students who want to go pro and do not care about their grades will just go somewhere else that will allow them to focus on their athletic performance. The students that do care about grades and doing well in school will do so regardless.
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