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Possible motives behind freshman ineligibility push; Punt, Pass & Pork

Presenting potential theories to explain the Big Ten's freshman ineligibility push. Plus, more college football analysis in Punt, Pass & Pork.

One question from last week’s #DearAndy mailbag keeps gnawing at me, possibly because there is no satisfactory answer at the moment. Louisville radio host Mark Ennis asked what ulterior motive Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany might have in pushing the idea of freshman ineligibility—a concept that died in 1972—for football and men’s basketball players. Delany and the Big Ten have churched up the name a bit, calling it a “Year of Readiness,” but the notion remains the same. Freshmen, or “first-years” at Virginia, wouldn’t be allowed to play in games.

The Big Ten intends to distribute a white paper discussing the issue to various “thought leaders,” but the gist of the Big Ten’s release from last week is that this won’t happen unless it passes through the legislative process. No league wants to voluntarily put itself at a competitive disadvantage, so why would the Big Ten push this plan now? And why would the Big 12 and Pac-12 commissioners seem at least interested, if not in favor of it? After speaking to a few Thought Leaders, I have some theories.

Theory No. 1, or, Maybe we’re just too cynical

Delany has said all of this before. I watched him say it under oath in a federal courtroom in Oakland, Calif., last June. During his testimony in O’Bannon v. NCAA, Delany referred to freshman ineligibility as a potential “silver bullet” that could help ill-prepared athletes adjust to the rigors of collegiate coursework. The idea fit neatly into the rest of Delany’s testimony, which generally expressed a desire for college athletes to be treated more like regular students who happen to play sports instead of athletes who occasionally happen to attend class.

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I believe Delany was telling the truth because he was an NCAA witness and his testimony helped sink the NCAA’s already weak case. (Also, because he has made similar statements elsewhere, and has not deviated from the general theme.) The NCAA had spent most of the trial trying to explain that a plaintiffs’ victory would drive a wedge between athletes and the general student body. Delany reinforced what the plaintiffs’ attorneys had argued for the entire trial; the wedge has existed for years. Delany didn’t mean to hurt the NCAA’s case. He was simply being honest, and honesty didn’t mesh with the fantasy world the NCAA’s attorneys wanted Judge Claudia Wilken to believe existed.

Freshmen were ineligible when Delany arrived as a basketball player at North Carolina in 1966. In Delany’s ideal college athletic model, everything would be as it was when he played for the Tar Heels—except the increases in revenue will fund even more scholarships in more sports. His statements through the years have hammered home the point that his experience as a student and an athlete helped shape him into the ultra-successful man he became. It’s also clear Delany wants as many people as possible to have an identical experience with the hope that it might help them find success in their adult lives. Ascribe all the ulterior motives you’d like, but I believe this is Delany’s primary motivation for just about everything he does. It may be make for snappier columns to envision Delany as a cartoon supervillain sitting in suburban Chicago trying to squeeze another dollar out of the efforts of Ohio State’s quarterbacks. But that isn’t the truth.

Unfortunately for Delany, reality has shifted since 1966. Back then, college sports were a business but not a multibillion-dollar business. Coaches, athletic directors and conference commissioners in the most powerful leagues made decent enough wages by the standard of the day, but nowhere near the megabucks they make now. No commissioner would have envisioned that he’d be the de facto head of a cable television network.

But that’s what Delany is now. He has made millions off college athletics. He created the Big Ten Network. He will be the one watching as ESPN and FOX trip over one another to throw money at the Big Ten when its first-tier media rights become available next year. In fact, it’s easy to argue no one is more responsible for turning college sports into the cutthroat business it is today than Delany. It also doesn’t help that Delany and his fellow commissioners needed a host of federal lawsuits to convince them to give the football and basketball players whose efforts produce all of the money their first raise—if you can call the cost-of-attendance stipends coming down the pipe a raise—since the 1940s. When an administrator suggests anything that appears to take something away from the athletes upon whom the business is built, he will be accused of having ulterior motives. 

jim delany frosh

Theory No. 2, or, Mr. Delany goes to Washington

There is no doubt that the people in charge of college sports want an antitrust exemption. The NCAA has jacked up its lobbying budget, and individual leagues have tried to increase their influence in Washington as well. These people need an antitrust exemption so various schools and conferences can continue to collude to impose what amounts to a wage ceiling on the bulk of their labor force.

One problem they face is that even the politicians who lean their way might be wary of giving an exemption to a group that claims to be about education but makes every major decision with an eye toward revenue generation. Freshman ineligibility would not make money for the schools. It would cost money. It likely wouldn’t devalue the football product, but it could reduce men’s basketball revenue. As long as the NBA maintains its current age limit, freshman ineligibility would chase most potential NBA lottery picks from the college game. Such players only come to college for a year now, but their presence gives basketball fans eager to watch the game’s next set of stars a reason to watch. Without those players, fans could stop paying attention. (At least until the NCAA tournament, when the ease of gambling on the event protects its popularity.) If those fans stop watching, ESPN and FOX might not pay as much for games in the next round of rights deals.

This isn’t a huge sum compared to what a disruption in the flow of football talent would cause, but it could result in a real loss of revenue. It means the people who run college sports would have made a decision that put education above revenue. Such a move could help convince legislators to get behind an antitrust exemption.

Theory No. 3, or, They all hate the SEC, Pawwwwl

John Calipari has figured out how to make Kentucky basketball dominant with a constant stream of one-and-done players. Make freshmen ineligible and Calipari would have to completely alter his recruiting philosophy. That wouldn’t guarantee a drop-off for Kentucky—after all, Calipari won at UMass and Memphis without so many one-and-dones—but it would force the Wildcats to adjust and keep the SEC from penciling a team into the Final Four almost every season.

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In football, the rule would allow teams in other leagues time to develop their young players. This might help negate the SEC’s homegrown talent advantage by only allowing the Alabamas and LSUs of the world to get two years on the field from the nearby talent they scoop up so easily every February.

I’m most skeptical of this theory, mostly because there are plenty of ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 schools with easy access to talent. Plus, the Ohio State team that just won the national title looked and played exactly like the best SEC programs of the past decade.

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You’ll never guess which conference the Thought Leaders who came up with this theory work inside.

Theory No. 4, or, Preparations for lost lawsuits

Maybe Delany and the others want to hedge their bets in case the NCAA and the conferences don’t get their antitrust exemption and get crushed in federal court over the next decade. If upheld on appeal, the verdict in the O’Bannon case will allow for more money for athletes, but only on a limited basis. O’Bannon only applies to the group sale of name, image and likeness rights. The NCAA’s rules against individual athletes cashing in have yet to get challenged in this round of lawsuits. That day is coming, though.

Jenkins v. NCAA, filed by attorney Jeffrey Kessler, seeks to blow up the entire NCAA rulebook. If that case ultimately succeeds, it would radically alter the business model for major college sports. If anyone were allowed to cut a deal with a player for an endorsement, boosters would try to load up the most sought-after recruits. Schools might promise prospects a certain cut of jersey or autograph sales. “We would create a false market,” one AD always tells me of this scenario. Essentially, this AD guarantees schools and boosters would overpay for talent. (Given what we’ve seen these people pay coaches, this is probably correct.) Perhaps the gap year between high school and playing eligibility would quell the urge to pay an unproven 17-year-old and allow schools and boosters to make better decisions with their money.

As you’ve probably already guessed, these theories are ordered by plausibility. It’s highly unlikely that Delany considered for even a second that a buffer year could save people paying players from themselves when he decided the Big Ten should pursue the idea of ineligible freshmen.

None of these theories may matter, however, because freshman ineligibility is going to be a tough sell. The idea is that players would have fewer responsibilities as freshmen and would have more time to acclimate to college life and college classes. The most pie-in-the-sky model would severely limit the amount of time the athletic programs could require of their freshmen. Yet the truth is no matter what the rules say coaches would still force players to do everything except play in the games. So, realistically, the players would miss out on the most fun part of being an athlete and only get a few hours back in return. That’s hardly a fair trade. Plus, most coaches would want to field freshman teams that would then play one another. That’s what happened before 1972, and it would probably happen again.

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Also, the Big Ten plan would land on top of a new NCAA policy set to take effect in 2016 that will force athletes to redshirt if they don’t meet certain academic benchmarks coming out of high school. This policy essentially brings back the old partial qualifier designation. So, if the least ready of the athletes already must redshirt, why punish the ones who do arrive to college prepared?

Meanwhile, football coaches would want more scholarships available because they would have less roster depth. “They want us to play all these games with 60 scholarship players?” TCU coach Gary Patterson said to FOX Sports’ David Ubben last week. “I'll take it with 10 more scholarships, but you can't talk out of both sides of your mouth.” The inevitable increase in scholarships would cost more money. Of course, it would also provide more scholarship opportunities to athletes, so that could be a good byproduct. Yet it would require another choice that puts education above money. And these scholarships would cost more than they did in the past. They would be for the full cost of attendance, and might also include a name, image and likeness stipend. Plus, in a day and age when law schools are designing tracks seemingly dedicated to suing the NCAA, would it be wise to only make football and men’s basketball players ineligible as freshmen? Wouldn’t that be begging for a gender discrimination lawsuit, at least from the basketball side?

But Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione makes an excellent point. Despite those reasons listed above—and Castiglione has considered most, if not all—this conversation is ultimately about seeking a way to help athletes become better students. Even if it doesn’t result in freshman ineligibility, it could generate an idea or two that help make progress toward that goal. “No matter the individual opinions on the topic, it’s a healthy discussion to have,” Castiglione said. “And it probably shouldn’t stop at just that one issue.” This is a time of sweeping change in college sports. Why not put everything on the table?

Mississippi State AD Scott Stricklin said taking away playing opportunities might be a bad look in an age when college sports administrators are finally building goodwill by providing more money and resources to athletes. He suggests a compromise that allows more time for studies and more playing opportunities. “I think we should outlaw redshirting except for medical reasons,” Stricklin said, “and I think we should give everyone five years of eligibility.” Stricklin reasons that regular members of the student body are taking longer to graduate, and college sports haven’t adjusted. Coaches have been requesting five years to play five—instead of the current five to play four—for years. So, why not let them play and still give them the extra year?

These and other issues will be raised as athletic directors and conference leaders discuss the Year of Readiness in the next few months. The Thought Leaders may shoot down freshman ineligibility, but may generate better ideas to help athletes become better students. That’s why this is a great conversation to have, no matter the motive behind it.