Does Education Have Any Place in College Sports Programs?

The Big Ten Conference's Year of Readiness proposal, which would push freshman athletes to the sidelines, is supposedly about giving students time to explore educational opportunities, but the financial benefits to colleges and universities are hard to ignore.
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The Big Ten Conference's Year of Readiness proposal, which would push freshman athletes to the sidelines, is supposedly about giving students time to explore educational opportunities, but the financial benefits to colleges and universities are hard to ignore.
Game day at Ohio State University. (Photo: aceshot1/Shutterstock)

Game day at Ohio State University. (Photo: aceshot1/Shutterstock)

“Anybody who thinks that we’re in a good place or that what we have is totally sustainable—I would suggest, is not really reading the tea leaves, because of the federal litigation, the federal interest in Congress, and the public’s skepticism, and even the media’s skepticism. We’re not in 1965; we’re in 2015. We think it’s time for a good, full, broad, national discussion on where education fits in the system.”
     —Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany, on the Big Ten Network

Although the public has been offered very little explanation of what the Big Ten Conference’s Year of Readiness proposal entails, its core is this: As it currently stands, the Year of Readiness aims to rule freshmen football and men’s basketball players ineligible their first year on campus—an immediate redshirt of sorts. Freshman athletes are essentially taken out of the competitive realm and relegated to the sideline.

The proposal is a document with murky parameters that few have seen—which only serves as kerosene for its speculation. Maryland’s student newspaper, the Diamondback, essentially brought the story to the forefront last month—at least, as the proposal pertained to the Big Ten Conference. Pac-12, Big 12, and Atlantic Coast Conference officials are—and have beenmulling over similar concepts in recent months. Although there’s a chance of the proposal being applied to other collegiate sports, there are currently only two being spotlighted. Though no definitive groundwork or trajectory has been laid, it’s expected that the proposal would be presented at the 2016 National Collegiate Athletic Association event in San Antonio.

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In 1972, more than 40 years ago, this exact policy was eradicated, largely due to the money the NCAA stood to make. After all, scholarships and off-the-field maladies add up. Now, with the NCAA pocketing nearly $11 billion annually from college athletics—more than the National Football League, National Basketball Association, National Hockey League, and Major League Soccer—it seems the umbrella organization is finally allowing education to enter its periphery.

“(Freshmen ineligibility in football and men’s basketball is) something that we had from 1890-1972,” Delany said. “Some people think that it was maybe one of the worst things that we did, nevertheless we did it.”

The Big Ten Conference issued this statement in late February:

The conference unanimously decided it would be important at this juncture to reach out to a diverse group of thought leaders in an effort to obtain as much feedback as possible to a number of important areas impacting academics on campus. Those areas include the potential establishment of a year of readiness for all sports—or select sports; student-athlete time demands; playing seasons; initial eligibility requirements; and other areas impacting academics on college campuses across the country. Knowing that matters of such impact would never be adopted unilaterally by a single conference or institution, it is important to the conference to devise a strategy and timeline that would encourage, and allow the conference to obtain, input from all.

Ostensibly, the move is being made with the long-term betterment of the student-athlete in mind. This is the crux of the proposal: It’s a year for students to develop mentally and physically, and ease the not-uncommon rigors inherently associated with the college transition. This core tenant gets the parents on board—the ones who care deeply about the educational resources provided in the school’s brochure, even if they’re hidden and folded at the bottom of the recruitment package, beneath the glossy photos of the team’s training facilities and the stunning pictorial representations of hubris.

“These guys need time to grow up. They need time to mature. They need time to become a man and figure out what it’s really like,” says Sam Keller, a former Big Ten quarterback who recently won a class-action lawsuit against the NCAA and EA Sports over its annually released college football video game. “I think a year to keep them there, at least in a small-scale, helps them do that,”

The tenant also gets school faculty to buy into the mission at a time when there’s a student-athlete academic scandal seemingly every few months.

“This is a really critical question for all of college athletics,” Sandy Barbour, the director of athletics at Penn State University, said in a statement. “It needs to be discussed around time demands and readiness for our student-athletes, and giving them the opportunity to really access these great educational opportunities.”

Those clamoring about graduation rates should look no further than the NCAA's report in October, which, using the most recent data available, found that virtually every demographic within the national pool of Division 1 student-athletes improved its graduation scores from 2000-2013. It was even published under the headline “Student-Athletes Earn Diplomas at Record Rate.”

Commissioner Delany also mentioned, in the prior statement, the confluence of one-and-done athletes as now inextricably linked to the proposal’s mission. From a fiscal perspective, it’s clear why colleges and universities—and particularly the governing body that oversees them—would fulminate at the thought of athletes jumping to professional ranks before they graduate, sometimes even after just the first year on campus.

Keeping athletes in dorm rooms keeps fans and alumni buying jerseys and attending events—from conference games to Sunday brunches. Keeping marquee players thickens school and NCAA pocketbooks. Delany also mentioned that the reason men’s basketball and football were underscored was due to the fact that they generate the most revenue for Division 1 colleges and universities.

The University of Iowa's Kinnick Stadium. (Photo: SolonHawk/Wikimedia Commons)

The University of Iowa's Kinnick Stadium. (Photo: SolonHawk/Wikimedia Commons)

“Essentially, you know, we’re trying to figure out a way to communicate the idea that education comes before athletics and that we’re not—don’t want to be perceived to be a minor league for the NBA and the NFL,” Delany said.

The problem is that, even though the likelihood of a high school basketball player ascending to the NBA is three out of every 10,000 players, and an even smaller fraction applies to one-and-done athletes—with similar averages found in football and a number of other sports, isn’t the NCAA’s perennial advertisement engineered around “going pro in something other than sports?”—you can’t help but feel that this is the catalyst for the sparked dialogue, not education.

This is troubling and, in the context of Delany’s comments, only applies to men’s basketball players. The last five No. 1 overall picks in the NBA draft left school after their freshman year. Moreover, six of the top 10 players on CBS Sports’ 2015 NBA Draft prospect rankings are freshmen, and one of the other three is Emmanuel Mudiay, a 19-year-old playing in China on a million-dollar contract after choosing to skip college altogether.

If the issue, according to collegiate conferences, is age, then it’s on the NBA to raise the league's age limit, as commissioner Adam Silver has recently suggested. Meanwhile, the NFL's collective bargaining agreement stipulates that a player must spend at least three years out of high school before jumping to the pros. A lion’s share of first-year players redshirts their freshmen football season anyway to physically mature.

“Our view is that this is a systemic issue. It’s a cultural issue, and if our schools were willing to, you know, stimulate a discussion, it would be a discussion with the whole country—32 conferences. We don’t have autonomy over this,” Delany said.

This, if anything, is comforting. If the proposal weren’t universally adopted, it would almost certainly cripple the conference’s competitiveness in the two sports.

“You can’t just do it to the Big Ten and not everybody else,” Keller says. “If it was just the Big Ten and nobody else could do it, it would be absolutely ridiculous.”

Ohio State head basketball coach Thad Matta called the whole situation “a nightmare” that all of the Big Ten coaches are dealing with. The Big Ten Conference—if this weren’t adopted universally—is wholly misguided if its thinks athletes will willingly stomach the conditions of the proposal and join one of its programs. Athletes will flock to conferences where they can play immediately and accrue the in-game experiences necessary for the next level, or attend community colleges their first year out of high school. Or, as Mudiay did, athletes will skip the process altogether and families will send them across the globe to immediately sign-and-play until they’re eligible for the pros back home. Coaches will watch the mass exodus from their living rooms.

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There are caveats that need to be heeded. “The pressure in these two sports is very different,” Delany said in his interview with the Big Ten Network. It can be assumed Delany’s implicit message is that every other sport outside of football and men’s basketball—let alone ones that would involve females, heaven forbid—don’t operate under the same scrutiny.

This loose wordage is problematic for a number of reasons, but sex is certainly one of the most prevalent among them. Pressure and scrutiny are overarching terms loosely affixed to collegiate athletes and are difficult, if not impossible, to quantify. They’re incredibly subjective, but if Delany were, in fact, referring to the atmosphere of the sporting event and the ticket sales drawn by the sport itself as directly correlated to pressure and scrutiny, he would do well to consider this: Although the NCAA stopped updating volleyball attendance ratings in 2012, six Division 1 volleyball programs drew more than 3,000 in home attendance per match that year—ratings higher than 59 percent of the first 120 teams listed in college basketball’s Division 1 attendance rankings for last season.

College baseball provides an additional counter-argument, in terms of attendance and fan zealotry. Scrutiny and pressure are indissolubly tied to sport and, regardless of how tradition, crowd, and context are infused into the situation, every athlete in every sport feels it.

“The reason has to be to keep players around to make more money,” says Wyatt Aycock, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln gymnast from 2010-14. “Either that, or so they can be more mature when they play, but that should be the coach’s opinion and choice to play them as a freshman.”

Northwestern University's Ryan Field. (Photo: Greenstrat/Wikimedia Commons)

Northwestern University's Ryan Field. (Photo: Greenstrat/Wikimedia Commons)

A couched message sent by the Year of Readiness proposal is the notion that players aren’t ready to contribute immediately, which is wholly misguided: Six of the seven leading scorers on the University of Kentucky basketball team, which is on pace to be the first undefeated Division 1 basketball team in 40 years, are underclassmen. Less than two months ago, a 19-year-old just rushed for the most yards in NCAA football championship history, backed by a roster that included 12 true freshmen. Earlier in the season, Oklahoma true freshman Samaje Perine set an FBS single-game record with 427 rushing yards against Kansas.

Perhaps more troubling is the implication that freshmen are not mature enough to be allowed on court, arena, or field. Just as some of the brightest high school academics fail classes or drop out of universities altogether while those who scraped by in high school excel with the newfound independence and more honed coursework offered in college, there are freshmen athletes more mature than the fathers who raised them.

“I don’t like it (freshman ineligibility), because I think it’s unfair to the kids that do have the ability to take it on,” Barbour said in her statement. To place all students, particularly athletes, on the same mental and physical axis is to refute variance.

“Everybody’s situation is different,” Keller says. “Some have to grow up quicker than others. You hear stories about guys that are taking care of their family, that are the man of the house their junior or senior year of high school.”

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There is a hue of privilege in the proposal that is unmistakable and, as in most cases, glossed over. To ask a boy to remove himself from a year of competition is to set him back two. Consider that the average NBA career lasts just under five years and the average NFL career lasts under four. Both leagues reward youth, dolling out lucrative contracts and extensions to up-and-coming prospects that can survive the short shelf life. This proposal, in essence, could take away one or two of those years, which isn’t a price many can pay. There are still boys and girls who see their legs, arms, and verticals as bread and milk on a future table for a sibling, as a home built in a safer community for the family that raised and protected them.

Fewer out-of-class responsibilities can produce repercussions as well. There has to come a point when the student-athlete label is removed from the equation. College athletes, on average, put in more than 43 hours per week on their craft, aren’t allowed to hold part-time jobs, miss extensive periods of school for athletic events, rarely have time to get involved on campus, and generate exorbitant amounts of cash that never reaches their wallet. They are a forklift for the school that brings in revenue, titillating boosters and alumni, all while getting a congratulatory slap on the rear in return.

In a study entitled “The Price of Poverty in Big Time College Sport,” the National College Players Association found that the average FBS full scholarship athlete earns less (by more than $1,500) than what’s considered the federal poverty line. There is a reason why football players at Northwestern University petitioned to form a union. There is a reason why Keller and other student-athletes reached a $20 million settlement with the NCAA and EA Sports after their likenesses were sold for profit. This foot-half-in-the-door methodology that labels athletes as equal members of the student body creates myriad glitches.

It seems only fitting that the Big Ten—the most antiquated Division 1 conference, which happens to also be the most valuable—is the face of the proposal. What’s unclear is whether it will be enacted at all. There are certainly positives that come from simply lending an ear to reform dialogue. However, as it stands currently, this proposal is a quick-fix attempt to cauterize something systemic; a litany of half-truths can’t patch the hole where college athletics are headed if the amateur label isn’t dropped. Chipping away at the corners cannot amend an already broken system.

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