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Freshmen Ineligibility: An Old-but-Wise Approach to Improving Academics in College Basketball

Published:  March 29, 2011

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan ushered in the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament earlier this month with an op-ed in The Washington Post arguing that schools should only qualify for post-season play if they are on track to graduate at least 40 percent of their players.

The argument by Duncan, who is a basketball player and fan himself, has been made by many critics, including the Knight Commission for Intercollegiate Athletics, which proposed restricting participation to only those programs that graduated more than half of their players. And rightfully so: men’s college basketball does a poor job of graduating its players, with 10 of the original 68 teams in the tournament not meeting the “50 percent” benchmark this year. This leaves players who don’t go professional -- the vast majority of them -- without the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in the real world. Many sportswriters and fans, on the other hand, think that Duncan’s viewpoint is out of touch --and that critics of NCAA basketball and football need to come to grips with the fact that, for many athletes who play for hugely popular athletics programs, the sport is simply more important than the degree.

At Higher Ed Watch, we have a different problem with Duncan’s suggestion: we don’t think he goes far enough. If teams were forced to have to meet a graduation rate requirement in order to compete in the tournament, problems with cheating and academic dishonesty among players and schools would be even more rampant than they are today while the immense pressure for the players to succeed on the court would be as strong as ever. Considering the lax oversight the NCAA provides, this would not be an adequate solution for mending what is broken in Division 1 basketball.

To really get players on track to graduate, the NCAA should take a tip from its old playbook: freshmen ineligibility. We believe that the NCAA should make all Division 1 football and men’s basketball players ineligible to play during their freshmen year so they have time to adjust and ground themselves academically during the time they need it most. Then, student athletes would at least have a handle on academics before trying to balance their dual roles.

For much of the 20th Century, freshmen ineligibility was standard for all varsity college sports. In 1972, however, the NCAA overturned the rule, mostly because colleges felt they were losing too much money off of scholarships and expenses on freshmen players who were not earning their keep on the court. However, revenue among college sports conferences have been skyrocketing in recent years, with the Southeastern Conference (SEC) reaping over $1 billion in revenue this year alone. Considering the massive amounts of money colleges are currently making off of their unpaid student athletes, they should be able to afford a change that aids the long-term well-being of their players.

It’s true that college basketball would look a little different if the NCAA restored freshmen ineligibility. The sport would no longer be an unofficial farm league for the NBA, and a handful of star players would likely play in Europe or take other alternative paths to going professional. But the vast majority of players would remain, and those who chose to become student athletes would have better opportunities to engage academically. And for those students who chose to skip college and go pro as soon as possible? They’ll leave more scholarships for well-deserving young athletes who are committed to the college experience. Some of the scandals revolving around player’s agents, too, would very likely disappear if students who attend college purely as a stepping stone to the professional leagues are weeded out.

Pragmatically speaking, we may be as “out of touch” as Secretary Duncan. But growing concerns about lasting injuries and their effects on the wellbeing of college athletes, the outrageous salaries paid to coaches, and the nefarious role of agents and “runners” on college campuses are bringing the NCAA under scrutiny -- and putting the organization out of touch with its own mission to govern college sports and integrate athletics programs with higher education. The time has come for the NCAA to reel itself in and start doing a better job of supporting its players.

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