Why banning true freshmen is a bad idea that will never happen
During a pregame radio interview last Saturday, John Calipari predictably scoffed at the notion of restoring freshman ineligibility in college football and men’s basketball for the first time since 1972.
"I don’t know why," said the coach of undefeated, freshman-dependent Kentucky, "other than, let’s not have any good players in college basketball because Kentucky gets too many."
His fans presumably ate it up. His critics surely find it infuriating. But honestly, Calipari’s self-reverential theory is as good as any why such an implausible and anachronistic concept is suddenly gaining traction among college athletics leaders.
In conversations since last week with numerous administrators around the country, I’ve learned that a surprising number of influential figures are truly interested in exploring the so-called Year of Readiness concept. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany has been quietly planting the seeds for months, but Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, for one, is making sure his conference takes the matter seriously. The Pac-12’s Larry Scott likely will as well.
What stood out most, though, is that no two people had the same explanation as to why they’re taking the ineligibility idea seriously. They’re all concerned … about something, and there’s a collective appetite in exploring … well, something.
"College athletics is not professional athletics," Kansas State AD John Currie told FOX Sports. "Ideas that are bold, that can help differentiate college athletics from the professional model, are things we should consider. So I’m encouraged by the discussion of freshman ineligibility."
The crux of the Big Ten’s initiative — first reported last week by Maryland’s student newspaper, the Diamondback, and detailed in a statement the conference released Tuesday — is Delany’s stated goal of reestablishing the two revenue sports as "education-first" enterprises.
What no one has yet articulated, however, is why they believe a de facto redshirt year would make a tangible difference in athletes’ academic lives. Do current redshirt freshman football players perform better in the classroom than their counterparts that dress out on Saturdays? Would the tiny fraction of academically disinterested basketball players who’d choose the D-league instead cause a notable improvement in teams’ graduation rates?
"It’s backwards," one Power 5 athletic director said. "Usually their better grades are freshman year because they’re entry-level classes. If a kid struggles academically, it’s usually going to be his junior and senior seasons."
Meanwhile, the NCAA is already set to implement the so-called "academic redshirt" requirement beginning with the 2016-17 school year. Whereas current incoming recruits need a 2.0 core-course GPA to qualify academically, now they’ll need at least a 2.3 to compete as freshmen.
Think about this for a second. If university presidents truly wanted football and basketball to be academic-first endeavors, they’d stop letting their coaches recruit 2.0 high school students in the first place. They’d hold athletes to the same admissions standards as their general student body. But of course that’s not going to happen, because then their schools might win fewer games.
A more honest summation of how we got here is that college athletic leaders don’t want to disrupt the multibillion dollar entertainment vehicles their most visible sports have become, but they don’t like the mounting criticism and scrutiny that’s come with it.
"There has been an extended period of time where athletic directors and university presidents have allowed the definition of what college sports is to be told by other people," another Power 5 AD said.
That’s because nearly as many people watched last month’s Ohio State-Oregon national championship game (33.4 million) as last weekend’s Oscars ceremony (36.6 million). When two teams of "student-athletes" can drive nearly as many advertising dollars as the most famous movie stars in Hollywood, you can see why the public isn’t buying the antiquated premise they’re scholars first, athletes second.
But many noble-minded athletic administrators aren’t yet ready to concede a concept they hold dear to the various lawyers and politicians currently foaming with anti-NCAA vitriol. And so, here we are, talking about benching freshmen.
"We’re sort of on the clock, is the way a lot of us look at it," Delany said in a recent interview with the Big Ten Network. "We’ve got a lot of litigation challenging intercollegiate athletics, we’ve got congressional interest and we have public skepticism. What we want to do is drive the message that education is first, athletics is second, even though these are the two most popular sports commercially."
Delany makes for an interesting face of this nascent turn-back-the-clock movement. He, more than anyone, embodies the paradox of modern college athletics.
A former North Carolina point guard in the late-’60s, back when freshmen were indeed ineligible and the NCAA tournament was not yet MARCH MADNESS, Delany has been championing his reform message for some time now. Tuesday’s call-to-arms, coming out of a meeting of Big Ten administrators and athlete representatives, referenced several other ideas he’s previously floated like curtailing athletes’ offseason time demands and examining the length of and start dates of playing seasons.
And yet Delany is also more responsible than any other college athletics figure of the past 30 years in commercializing those sports. He annexed Penn State in the early ’90s, touching off the first massive TV-driven realignment wave. He started the influential and money-printing Big Ten Network. He touched off Realignment Mania II five years ago when the league began hunting for a 12th member that eventually became Nebraska, and then he took it to another degree with his conference’s East Coast push.
You know what would really help Rutgers’ basketball players focus on academics? Not having to travel to Iowa City in the middle of the week for a conference game, as they did last week.
But Delany is also a well-heeled navigator of the NCAA policy-making maze. He does not launch massive initiatives without a realistic end game. And deep down he surely knows the road he’s undertaking will not end with a national vote for the restoration of freshman ineligibility at next January’s convention.
The SEC, for one, will never go for it. Not as long as Calipari’s churning out national title contenders full of freshmen and football powers like Alabama and LSU are luring five-stars with the promise of a "three-year plan" to get to the NFL. Meanwhile, most of the other 27 Division I conferences have little incentive to support such a move because most of them aren’t getting confused for pseudo-professional leagues. Even if Delany could get the majority of his peers on board, surely he realizes the opposition he’d run into trying to impose such a radical restriction on just those two sports.
"It would be really hard to defend" singling out football and men’s basketball, said one AD. "If [the reason is] academic preparedness, I’ve got some football players who come here superbly prepared to handle both. If it’s something to do with their status as revenue sports, that doesn’t make any sense."
All of which has led to dismissive reactions like that of Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who recently said of freshman ineligibility: "It’s something that will never happen, and I don’t know why people are talking about it."
Realistically, Delany’s true agenda is not to make freshmen ineligible. But he’s trying to accomplish something just by getting the rest of the industry to talk about it.
Maybe he’s hoping to pressure the NBA into changing its age minimum and thus ridding college basketball of Calipari’s coveted one-and-dones. But that seems an awfully convoluted way of going about it.
Maybe he’s trying to focus more attention on disparities in admissions standards and help negate an issue that’s often put his members at a disadvantage in football. Former Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen recently said he left for Oregon State in large part over frustrations about the Badgers’ admissions policies.
Whatever the case, he’s ensured the freshman issue will be high on the conversation list at other conference’s annual meetings this spring. Their first order of business should be a discussion about why they’re discussing this.
Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.