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Big Ten seeks to bar freshmen from men's basketball, football competition, per report

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The Big Ten joins the ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 in considering the move.

Jim Delany, the Big Ten's commissioner, pictured at the league's men's basketball media day in the fall.
Jim Delany, the Big Ten's commissioner, pictured at the league's men's basketball media day in the fall.
Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

The Big Ten is taking steps to ban true freshmen from competing in men's basketball and football, according to The Diamondback's Ellie Silverman and Aaron Kasinitz, who obtained a league document revealing the plan.

The conference has found that men's basketball and football players make up less than 20 percent of the NCAA's student-athletes yet account for more than 80 percent of its academic violations, the reporters said. To that end, the Big Ten's goal is to correct an "imbalance" that has neglected academics in those two sports.

Of note, The Diamondback has Maryland university president Wallace Loh on the record, offering what certainly sounds like an endorsement – if not an outright one – of the proposed policy change:

"What I like about the concept of the proposal is it puts right up front the basic issue: Are we basically a quasi-professional activity or primarily an educational activity? And if you support it, you are basically saying very clearly the No. 1 priority is the education of the students."

The university's athletic council chairman, Nick Hadley, also expressed support for the idea. And in the past, Maryland football coach Randy Edsall has called for a uniform freshman redshirt policy in college football.

This is major news, even if it comes in the wake of the ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 weighing similar moves. No major conference has made such an outright step toward re-instituting the ban on freshman competition since it was lifted in 1972. And the impact on the NCAA's highest-grossing sports, especially basketball, could be enormous.

The Big Ten would never embark on such a change by itself without other conferences following suit, and Silverman and Kasinitz reported that the league wants to start a "national conversation" about making the switch.

At a meeting on Thursday afternoon, university athletic council members and athletic department officials discussed the possibility of banning freshmen in the sports, one attendee said. Department officials outlined the idea and didn't reject it, but many council members saw it as a ruse to prevent college athletes from unionizing sometime down the road, the source said.

In basketball, such a change would turn the highest echelons of the sport on their heads. Rare is the national title contender that doesn't rely on blue-chip freshmen in March. A program like Kentucky, which has built an empire by relying on one-and two-year stays from star prospects, would have to drastically alter its way of doing business. And players like D'Angelo Russell, the freshman Ohio State guard who has shot to the top of NBA Draft lists this season, might be incentivized to skip college altogether instead of stopping over for a season on the way to professional play. The same could be suggested of Maryland's Melo Trimble.

It's a slightly less unusual concept in football, where only the best freshmen ordinarily receive consistent playing time. Last season, for instance, Maryland relied in spots on linebacker Jesse Aniebonam, but not a single one of the Terrapins' main contributors on offense or defense were freshmen. Even still, the Terps have relied heavily on freshmen in other recent seasons, including receiver Stefon Diggs in 2012 and cornerback William Likely in 2013.

The debate also raises unquestionable racial and class issues, as college football and basketball players skew heavily towards minority groups. If the NCAA penalized freshmen football and men's basketball players for not performing in the classroom, some might see it as robbing athletes of a healthy outlet – and as disproportionately targeting black players by zeroing in on two of the only black-majority sports. It would also lump all freshman players into the same academic group, whether they're ready for the educational rigors of higher education or not. It would clearly put the classroom back in the national spotlight, though, and it could save money for a number of parties, including universities, the NBA and NFL.