Step 1: Admit you have a problem.
The Big Ten Conference acknowledged in a report released in April that college football and men’s basketball have a problem, which is this: More and more evidence is emerging that education is secondary to athletics when it comes to these sports.
Big Ten officials mince no words when they explain the perception that’s spreading about football and men’s basketball: “That the purported educational mission of intercollegiate athletics is a facade — 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.”
Anyone who’s been paying attention to those intercollegiate sports, especially men’s basketball, might be inclined to meet the Big Ten’s acknowledgement with a shrug. “Well, duh,” it could be said. “You’re just figuring this out?”
Still, it’s important that a major conference willingly admits change is overdue. And it’s important that the Big Ten offered a dramatic change.
The report, called “Education First, Athletics Second,” stated more than once that it did not want to be seen as a proposal for one solution to changing the landscape of college athletics, but rather “a launching pad for a national discussion of ideas that would clearly establish that education comes first and athletics come second in all sports in the collegiate model.”
But initial coverage of the report centered on the one idea that was prominent in it: ineligibility for freshmen in those two sports, billing the first year on campus as “a year of readiness” that would not take away from the four years of eligibility for the athletes. In other words, it would be a mandated red-shirt year for academic growth.
In basketball, this would force players to commit to two years on campus and potentially weed out the one-and-done player who, as the report says, “minimally needs to meet eligibility standards for one term to receive one full year of athletic development before leaving the institution.” They would not go through the charade of being a student. Think Kentucky. Or IU’s Noah Vonleh.
It would also help thousands of student-athletes in these two high-profile, high-pressure sports who are struggling in the classroom.
The Big Ten report states: “Upon arrival to our campuses, student-athletes in the sports of football and men’s basketball are less prepared (on average) relative to meeting initial eligibility standards than student-athletes in any other sport.” These student-athletes stay behind. The report says that among 34 sports listed in the most recent Graduation Success Rate Data and the 38 sports listed in the most recent Academic Progress Rate data, football and men’s basketball are at the bottom.
The report charges there has been “a proliferation of questionable secondary institutions (mostly in men’s basketball but now in both sports), which supply an increasing number of student-athletes in both sports.” It says 32 of 37 major infractions cases involving academic fraud in the past 20 years involved football or men’s basketball. It notes that though fewer than 19 percent of all student-athletes come from those two sports, more than 80 percent of academic infractions cases come from them.
The report also noted a majority of the football and men’s basketball players believe they will play professionally when they leave school, and they spend 40 hours a week or more on that pursuit while in college. The seasons are about as long as professional seasons, and they involve significant time away from campus.
In addition, the report notes that those two sports have become similar to professional leagues in a commercial sense. Top coaches are paid as much, or more, as their professional counterparts. Attendance for the football power conference games and the top 30 schools in Division I men’s basketball is comparable to the NFL and NBA.
“A year of readiness” could not be implemented by one conference without wrecking the competitive balance. But it truly is something the NCAA should consider for all its institutions.
Bob Zaltsberg is editor of the (Bloomington) Herald-Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.