ROSEMONT, ILL. – Some Big Ten athletic directors referred to it as a lightning rod, and they meant it in a good way.
Jim Delany’s idea of making freshmen ineligible in football and men’s basketball has drawn plenty of attention and scorn. But ever since presenting the idea in a 12-page manifesto in April, the Big Ten commissioner has said he simply wants to spark a national discussion.
He believes this is a crucial time to start making education first and athletics second within college sports. Freshmen ineligibility — or what Delany calls “a year of readiness” — would be only one approach.
“That is not a proposal; it may never be a proposal,” Delany said Wednesday after the Big Ten spring meetings. “But it is a great pivot point to have this discussion.”
Gophers athletic director Norwood Teague and several others who met with the media this week seemed to agree. Many openly disagreed with the freshmen ineligibility idea, but all sounded passionate about bringing academics back to the fore.
Teague said the year of readiness idea is “probably an iffy proposition, but the debate that it sparks is very healthy. And Jim has been around the block. He knows what he’s doing, and he’s always thinking about what’s best for college athletics.”
Delany has made it clear the Big Ten won’t go it alone on any of these ideas. That would put its teams at a competitive disadvantage. SEC Commissioner Mike Slive is among those who oppose freshmen ineligibility.
But Delany has challenged those opposed to come up with their own ideas. The Big Ten’s three-day meetings explored ways to limit the time demands that teams place on athletes. Indiana AD Fred Glass, for example, suggested dead periods when “you literally and figuratively lock the door” on practice facilities.
The ADs discussed that and other ways they could encourage athletes to take internships or travel abroad.
“I am not a proponent of the year of readiness,” Ohio State AD Gene Smith said. “I love the fact our commissioner and league put it out there because it has become a lightning rod to discuss the academic issues.”
Delany’s paper laid out myriad issues facing college sports, namely the time demands on athletes and lagging graduation rates for football and men’s basketball.
“Central to much of the criticism is the notion … that the true mission is to make money off the efforts of players who ‘get nothing’ and serve as minor leagues for the NFL and NBA,” Delany’s paper says. “If we cannot defend … that education is the paramount factor in our decisionmaking process … then the enterprise stands as a house of cards.”
Delany’s idea of making freshmen ineligible would reinstate a policy the NCAA had until 1972. This time, freshmen ineligibility would only be for football and men’s basketball, with the goal of establishing two clear paths for elite high school athletes — a professional path and an educational path.
Duke just won the NCAA men’s basketball title with three freshmen — Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow — who all declared for the NBA draft after the tournament.
Northwestern AD Jim Phillips, who heads the NCAA’s new Division I Council, noted that only 10-12 college athletes per year are “one and done” out of 460,000 playing sports across all divisions.
Still, Phillips said: “Shame on us. We’ve allowed the National Basketball Association to influence what our rules are at the collegiate level. … I think they look at us as the minor league.”
Delany, who issued his paper April 17, said the Big Ten is sorting through feedback, which will be redistributed to stimulate more discussion. He said the goal is to create a “good exchange at the NCAA convention” in January.
He doesn’t expect any new proposals by then, but perhaps down the road.
The NCAA has a 20-hour rule, which says athletes cannot spend more than 20 hours per week in games, practices and film or training sessions dictated by coaches.
“How do you keep track of it? Come on,” Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez said. “Let’s not have ridiculous rules that you can’t enforce.”
Delany agreed that the 20-hour rule is a “misnomer.” He cited NCAA studies that have shown Division III athletes spend more than 30 hours per week on their sport, with Division II athletes spending more than 40, and Division I athletes in the mid-40s.
“If I were setting the agenda, the first thing would be the demand of student time,” said Rutgers AD Julie Hermann. “We’ve got to figure out what really is a true balance.”
Delany said that was his goal all along.