Nate Mason started and played 32 minutes at point guard in the Gophers’ road upset of Michigan State on Thursday. He didn’t look like a freshman in that tense environment.
“He plays with such great poise,” coach Richard Pitino said. “We’re excited about him.”
What if the NCAA had a rule in place that prevented Mason from playing simply because he’s a freshman? Seems absurd, right?
Not to the Big Ten, which hopes to start a national dialogue on that very issue. The conference gathered a group of administrators and athletes this week to discuss a so-called “year of readiness” proposal.
That’s a fancy term for a mandatory redshirt season, a rule the NCAA eliminated in 1972. The Big Ten has geared the discussion toward freshman ineligibility in football and men’s basketball only in what feels like a knee-jerk response to the one-and-done exodus in college basketball.
“We’re trying to figure out a way to communicate the idea that education comes before athletics and that we don’t want to be a minor league for the NBA and the NFL,” Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany told the league’s network.
In theory, he’s right. Education must remain a priority because the overwhelming majority of college athletes won’t play professionally. Their motivation should always revolve around earning a degree.
But this “readiness” idea is fundamentally unfair. It feels like an overreaction to the very small percentage of basketball players who view college as nothing more than a one-year pit stop on their way to the NBA.
College athletics undoubtedly have changed the past decade or so. The money involved seems transformative in nature, whether that’s TV contracts, facilities upgrades, coaches’ salaries, athletic budgets, ticket costs, etc.
The push for more, more, more combined with the visibility and pressure of football and basketball lends credence to the notion that, in many ways, those sports have become semipro.
Big Ten teams routinely miss class and play games on school nights to fill programming slots on the conference’s own network. It seems hypocritical for top officials to preach about academics taking a backseat when everyone is getting rich on athletics.
Would making freshmen ineligible really slow down that arms race and also dramatically raise graduation rates? Doubtful.
If the idea ever did gain serious traction, the Big Ten would never do it unilaterally. Delany is a smart, ambitious and calculated leader. He’s not stupid.
Delany knows that instituting freshman ineligibility on an island would severely undercut his programs in recruiting. Ohio State men’s basketball coach Thad Matta said he had to explain to recruits recently that this is merely a discussion topic that’s not strictly limited to the Big Ten, calling the confusion a “nightmare.”
Other conferences, including the Pac-12, have broached the issue as well, and any rule so divisive would require broad approval to keep the playing field level among power schools.
“Our view is that this is a systemic issue,” Delany said. “We really do think that we’re on the clock. We need to have a series of discussions to make sure that we’re all clear on where college athletics stands.”
But why focus solely on football and men’s basketball? Those aren’t the only sports than have time demands that might affect athletes’ transition to college academic life.
Football already requires a three-year commitment before declaring for the NFL. The majority of athletes redshirt anyway, so why mandate it for the ones who don’t need it?
College basketball undeniably is hurt by the annual turnover of one-and-done players, however small in numbers. Freshman ineligibility likely would cause those NBA-focused players to either spend a year in Europe or become two-and-done college athletes. And that helps how?
It just seems wrong to consider a mandatory redshirt for players such as Gophers guard Andre Hollins, who was not a one-and-done talent and adjusted well athletically and academically as a freshman.
Schools have mechanisms in place that help ease the academic transition for freshmen. They offer programs that allow incoming athletes to enroll in summer school so they get adjusted in a less stressful environment. Athletes also have access to tutors, study hall, class preferences.
That support structure is designed to help athletes succeed academically. Not everyone does.
“College sports needs to be about college,” Delany said. “The educational experiences need to be real.”
That’s absolutely true. But forcing freshmen to sit out a year is a radical concept that wouldn’t guarantee their desired outcome.