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Keep Freshman Men’s Basketball And Football Players Eligible

Freshman year is the worst. Learning a new place to live in, finding a new friend group, adjusting to a different level of academic—all of these are incredible challenges.

Leaders of the Big Ten Conference want to make the lives of freshman football and men’s basketball players easier. The way they want to go about it, however, will make these athletes’ lives a living hell.

The Big Ten is considering creating a ‘year of readiness’ for all football and men’s basketball players, according to The Diamondback, the University of Maryland student newspaper.

This rule would require that athletes in the two big revenue sports be ineligible as freshmen so they could adjust to the academic rigors and social challenges of college life.

Several institutions have expressed extreme support for the measure. Maryland president William Loh told the Diamondback, “If they do well because they spend more time, get more academic advising … their freshman year, they’re going to graduate. And I think it’s worth spending an extra year of financial support to ensure that they graduate.”

In addition, some conference commissioners, including the ACC’s John Swofford, said that the measure is an idea worth discussing further. “I don’t think it’s looked upon as radical an idea as it seemed to people five years or 10 years ago because it makes so much sense educationally,” Swofford told CBS Sports. “We’re in a period now where everybody is trying to get a hold of the student-athlete experience and a recommitment, if you will, to balance academics and athletics.”

Freshman ineligibility would revert to the original rules of the NCAA. The governing body of college athletics allowed freshman eligibility to all sports except football and men’s basketball in 1968, before following suit for those two in 1972.

Because of the high cost of providing funding for a separate freshman football and men’s basketball team, as well as giving scholarships to players who wouldn’t even contribute to the primary team, the NCAA reversed this policy.

Not everyone has expressed support for this proposal. Boston College men’s basketball coach Jim Christian thinks the change would be detrimental for players and programs alike.

“I don’t see it,” Christian said. “It’s an adjustment for everybody. But what is taking basketball away, the one thing they love and the one thing that you can be around them all the time, going to do?”

Christian vehemently disagrees with many of the issues some of the Big Ten’s leaders have with allowing freshmen to play. One-and-dones represent a miniscule amount of men’s basketball players in Division-I. The NBA raised the minimum draft age from 18 to 19 in 2006, forcing players to either attend college for at least one year or go overseas. According to CBS, an average of 10 true freshmen a year entered the NBA Draft from 2010-14. This pales in comparison to the nearly 5,000 men’s basketball players across 351 D-I programs.

Christian also believes fault for underclassmen failing at the pro level lies with NBA front offices.

“What’s prepared?,” Christian said. “They’re drafting them. We’re not telling them who to draft. So if they’re drafting people who are unprepared, that’s their issue. They’ve got to do a better job drafting. I think that they should draft older players. They draft potential.”

As Christian says, college coaches should not be held accountable for not having their players ready after only one year of coaching. Even if the player possesses incredible physical attributes or raw talent, it’s hard to blame coaches if the NBA results don’t match the potential scouts saw.

Christian provided a solution for the issue. “[The NBA] should change the rookie scale,” he said. “If the guys had to invest a lot of money like they do in the NFL, they better be right.”

Christian’s solution could work. If NBA teams were forced to use a larger percentage of the salary cap on rookies, perhaps they would put a heavier stock into established results rather than taking risks.

But I’m not convinced of that being a good plan—not immediately, at least. Raising the NBA rookie pay scale may entice more underclassmen to declare early in the hopes of a big payday. It would take years of NBA teams choosing more experienced players over freshmen before any real change would occur.

Some believe NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s plan to raise the minimum age limit from 19 to 20 would help college basketball. I don’t think that’s entirely true. Many young players may consider going overseas and learning under professional coaches—or just to avoid taking classes if they feel their trip to the NBA is guaranteed—while earning some money on the side. Note, however, that very few players have succeeded going that route—Brandon Jennings spent a year in Italy, and perhaps Emmanuel Mudiay may thrive after a year in China, but that’s all.

Lowering the age limit back down to 18 may actually help more. That allows high school players who scouts believe are at an elite level to make the jump immediately, if NBA teams are willing to take the risk. You could hit big, like with Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James. You could get serviceable talent—Rashard Lewis, Tyson Chandler, and Amar’e Stoudemire all fall into that group. Or, like a team could with any pick regardless of age, you could strike out big time: enter the Kwame Brown’s and Sebastian Telfair’s of the world. This would also allow college programs to work with players who are actually interested in playing in college, interested in learning from esteemed coaches like Mike Krzyzewski, and interested in receiving an education, rather than using college basketball as a quick stepping stone to the NBA.

There’s a common theme to these arguments—they require the NBA’s rules to change. As Christian said repeatedly: “it’s an NBA issue.” The Big Ten and the NCAA should let Silver and the NBA Players Association sort things out. The age limit benefits the NBA, allowing players to be more marketable by featuring them on national TV longer, and it also helps reduce some risk during the draft with another year of scouting. Conference leaders might need to respond to the NBA’s rules, but implementing freshman ineligibility isn’t the right response.

The logistics behind keeping freshmen from playing haven’t been released yet, but I don’t see how it will work. It wouldn’t make sense for the basketball players to not play in any games, so schools would have to form freshmen-only teams. Additional staff members would need to be hired to coach these teams, increasing athletic budgets. Increased expenditures would not come on athletic scholarships—football will still get 85 and men’s basketball will get 13, unless that rule changes as well. Keeping more players in college for a fifth year would only tie up those available scholarships for longer.

“To say to Jahlil Okafor you’re going to play on the freshman team?” Christian said. ”Those guys are going to go from the freshman team to the NBA.”

Granted, it might make sense in college football. A lot of the best players redshirt during their freshman year anyway for several reasons, like physical development or waiting for positional competition (especially among quarterbacks and offensive lineman) to graduate. It is extremely rare for the youngest possible players in football—redshirt sophomores—to get drafted. Jameis Winston and Johnny Manziel are the exceptions, not the rules. Additionally, BC is an exception in terms of its graduation rates for athletes. BC ranked third in the nation in Graduation Success Rate across all sports.

While it may not seem like a problem to Christian and BC, some schools have difficulty helping student-athletes graduate, especially ones from men’s basketball and football. For example, the average school graduates 71 percent of its football players. Florida State, North Carolina, and North Carolina State all come in under the national average.

Still, this measure should not pass. The NCAA should not curtail its rules to fit the needs of the NBA and NFL when the professional leagues give little consideration to effects on the college game.

If there would be any consolation to this rule, it’s the one that Christian conceded: “It’d be some good freshman games.”

February 23, 2015

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