clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Inside the Big Ten's proposal to keep freshmen from competing in football and men's basketball

New, comments

Looking deeper into the Big Ten's "year of readiness" proposal.

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany.
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany.
Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

By now, you know the Big Ten Conference is seeking institutional support for a plan to bar freshmen from competing in men's basketball and football, as it was reported by The Diamondback on Thursday.

Testudo Times obtained a copy of the draft of the league's memo, which has been circulated to Big Ten athletic administrations and governance structures. The league is looking into a "year of readiness" for freshman football and men's basketball players, based on correcting an "imbalance" that, in the league's view, disproportionately affects athletes in these two sports Here's much more of what's in the document, bit by bit.

The Big Ten believes college athletics are morally – but not financially – unsustainable.

In its proposal, the Big Ten makes clear that college sports have a moral problem. It's not that players in the revenue-producing sports of football and basketball aren't paid, though. It's that the NCAA relies on college football and men's basketball, to a great degree, to fund other sports that don't bring in major money for the schools that put them on.

"Although football and men's basketball stand alone in certain ways, they are not severable from the fabric of intercollegiate athletics; in fact, they are vital-not just because of the opportunities they provide, but candidly, because of the opportunities that exist through other sports that are sustained by revenue generated by football and men's basketball. Accordingly, if those two sports are not healthy, then the collegiate model is not healthy."

Keep in mind the connection the conference is drawing here. It's acknowledged that college football and basketball are the financial lifeblood of the NCAA and earn enough money to subsidize other sports. The Big Ten's concern, though, is that the money might be dirty if not come by through the appropriate balance of academics and athletics.

The Big Ten might not stick to the "year of readiness," but it'll continually push for academics-based reform

The league might not stick to pushing for freshman ineligibility, which is still a long shot.

"The year of readiness in these sports is just one idea; the time is upon us to consider this and any other ideas that will clearly establish that education comes first and athletics come second in all sports in the collegiate model."

The Big Ten is going to continue to be outspoken about rebalancing academics and athletics, even if this proposal goes nowhere.

The Big Ten isn't saying anything here about paying college athletes

This isn't surprising, given that the Big Ten is one of college sports' biggest profit centers and doesn't stand to gain from a radical overhaul of the current system. The Big Ten brought in $320 million last year. That the league used the term "a model worth saving" might not be significant, but you'd be forgiven for reading it as a tacit statement against any form of direct monetary payouts to student-athletes. In fact, the word "pay" does not appear in the 10-page treatise.

That's even as the conference produced statistics to show that power conference football programs typically averaged between 50,000 and 75,000 spectators at home games last year. The conference also assessed, fairly, that the College Football Playoff was "destined to be every bit the national spectacle that the Final Four has already become."

The Big Ten has cast itself as a reformist here, but not in the way athletes' advocates probably would've liked. The league's presidents have shown support for a compensatory system in the past, but it's surprising that wouldn't come at all in a discussion like this one.

Coach pay is a factor in the Big Ten's wanting to re-emphasize academics

The Big Ten is concerned that the high pay given to football and men's basketball coaches could taint the academic side of collegiate athletics:

"In the context of such a high-stakes environment, where coaches are compensated, hired, and fired on the basis of athletic success, we must make sure we do what is necessary to send a clear and unambiguous message about the primacy of the student-athletes' academic experience."

On the part of the conference, this is a strategic point. If everything about big-time college sports feels like big business, players have stronger legal footing to do things like unionize and demand money from their schools and conferences. But if players don't play as freshmen, they're not really employees as much as they're students, learning under the tutelage of handsomely compensated professors who can help them grow and develop as young men. These professors are often the highest-paid public employees in their states.

But when Kentucky coach John Calipari rides Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist to a national title before those players immediately leave for NBA millions, Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist start to look a lot like unpaid workers. And Calipari, for his part, looks like a businessman. On the contrary, when international center Enes Kanter sat on Kentucky's bench for a season because of eligibility restrictions before he went pro, Calipari looked a lot more like an advocate and mentor:

"I wish ESPN would stop saying we have had 18 draft picks over the last five years when we've had 19. They keep leaving off Enes Kanter. Enes was a part of our program. He was a student at UK, he practiced with us every day and he was evaluated at Kentucky. STOP!"

You can see where the divide takes shape.

The Big Ten does have evidence that football and men's basketball fall short academically

Men's basketball and football are last in graduation success rate (GSR) out of 34 measured sports nationally, the conference notes. Given the limited number of roster spots in the NBA and the enormous amount of college football players, it's highly unlikely that underclassmen exiting school early for the NBA or NFL Draft are the reason for that positioning. Football and men's basketball, to that end, are also last of 38 sports measured in academic performance rate (APR). It's not wrong to say, in the macro, that football and men's basketball players do worse in school than other student-athletes. They clearly do.

"In a competitive environment, pressure and the temptation to take shortcuts can be a powerful combination. Better positioning student-athletes to meet academic challenges through better preparation and a better transition to college can help mitigate the risk created through the combination of such pressure and temptation."

The Big Ten takes explicit aim at one-and-dones

The Big Ten has had a couple of one-and-done basketball players in recent seasons. Indiana's Noah Vonleh was a lottery pick last year. Ohio State's D'Angelo Russell will be running the point for an NBA team next season barring something drastic. The league isn't happy about this.

"Statistically speaking, the one-and-done phenomenon in men's basketball, where a student-athlete essentially needs to meet eligibility standards for one term to receive one full year of athletic development before leaving the institution, is an infrequent occurrence. Nevertheless, the fact that it occurs undermines the notion that such student-athletes are choosing to play in college because of the educational experience."

The conference, it seems, would rather live in a world where athletes are bound to their universities for four years at a time. This is fascinating, given that Big Ten schools – and every other school in the NCAA – can offer one year-at-a-time scholarships to athletes in a bevy of sports. Programs don't need to commit to student-athletes for more than a year if they don't want to, but collegiate administrators aren't thrilled about players bailing on college after a year, no matter what kind of professional payout is on the horizon.

The Big Ten doesn't want athletes to choose schools for athletic reasons

Here's how the Big Ten sees a year of readiness impacting high school prospects entering college:

"Prospects would be free to choose intercollegiate athletics with the understanding that participation in athletics is incidental to a long-term educational commitment, not the primary purpose for attending college. Specifically, the year of readiness would allow student-athletes to have a year of assimilation to campus life before worrying about competition and the pressures and scrutiny that would follow. It would ensure that these student-athletes understand what it means to be students (and importantly have the opportunity to be students) before being asked to compete."

This approach ignores a couple of realities about college football and basketball. First, it paints a "long-term educational commitment" as something that needs to be carried out in one place (the university) at one time (a consecutive period of more than a year, it seems), not as something that can be continued in another place at another time. That's not true at Maryland, where former student-athletes can resume work on their degrees long after their careers end.

Second, it assumes that every college freshman playing football or men's basketball has the same inability to balance textbooks and playbooks. Only 45 percent of immediate post-high school freshmen ultimately finish their degrees where they started them, and most estimates of the national dropout rate hover around or above 50 percent. Nobody is suggesting these students ease off from extracurriculars when they're freshmen, which means it's a harder sell to suggest that the Big Ten is trying to deal with anything other than early exits for professional drafts.

The Big Ten would prefer players make their college choices based on academics. That's a noble point, but it's not rooted in the reality of modern college sports – a reality that's impossible, at this stage, to rein in.

Freshman ineligibility disproportionately impacts black males. The Big Ten has a response

Going through the document, it's clear that the Big Ten wasn't tone-deaf about the outsize impact this kind of shift would have on black players. College basketball and football players happen to be largely black. That makes this a racial issue as well as an educational one, and the league recognizes this.

"The purpose is not to label football and men's basketball student-athletes; it is to mitigate, if not eradicate, any exploitative effects of providing competitive opportunities in those sports without simultaneously providing a meaningful educational experience. Further, we want to be clear that the number of opportunities in these two sports should be increased."

There's plenty in this idea that could cause problems, but at least the conference acknowledges that.

Freshman players who are good students are out of luck

The Big Ten says that "arguably the strongest objection" to freshman ineligibility is that some freshman football and men's basketball players aren't, you know, bad at school.

"Although that eventuality is certain to occur, if enough student-athletes in these sports were prepared at such a level, the academic performance in these sports would be much better and a measure such as a required year of readiness would be unnecessary."

In essence, the Big Ten is telling these kids to take one for the team.

The Big Ten is openly using good students' impact on the sports' academic statistics as a justification for keeping them off the playing field as freshmen. The conference wants to count these players' test scores for optics' sake, even if they're already in fine command of their athletic and academic situations. The Big Ten makes no effort to hide this point.

This post has been updated to reflect that Michigan's Mitch McGary was not a one-and-done player, as it was previously stated in the post.