Barry Jacobs: Will freshman ineligibility cure college sports’ ills?

Nothing is more powerful, wrote novelist Victor Hugo, than an idea whose time has come. Unless its time has come and gone, that is, which may be the case with freshman ineligibility in college sports.

A rising chorus is singing the praises of what’s being called “a year of readiness,” a new way of spinning a long-held belief that requiring freshmen to sit out a year of varsity competition can only help them academically, athletically and socially. The practice was shelved after the 1972 school year, mostly on fiscal grounds, but its restoration remains a key component of most reform efforts. Now freshman ineligibility is being touted by leaders of some power conferences as a partial cure for what ails college sports.

But what worked more than 40 years ago – if it worked – must fit within a vastly altered landscape in which equal rights for women must be considered; red-shirting is common for freshman football players; the pressure to leave school early is stronger than ever in men’s basketball; and there is increased resistance to paternalistic limits on athletes’ freedom.

Last month, ACC commissioner John Swofford told the Louisville Courier-Journal the league hasn’t taken any votes “in recent years” on freshman ineligibility. “I think it’s very educationally sound, and I think we should think about and consider anything that’s educationally sound,” said Swofford, who was ineligible as a freshman football player at UNC in the late 1960s. “Whether we get back to that, I don’t know. I don’t know if it fits the times in today’s world.”

Certainly an across-the-board ban on freshmen would handicap the Triangle’s ACC men in the current NCAA basketball tournament.

North Carolina might have fallen to Harvard in the Tar Heels’ opener without two late baskets from freshman wing Justin Jackson. N.C. State couldn’t have secured a 71-68 upset over top seed Villanova without 13 points and 12 rebounds by freshman post player Abdul-Malik Abu. As for No. 1-seed Duke, with four freshmen among its eight scholarship players, merely fielding a team would have been a challenge.

Kentucky, the heavy favorite to win the championship and a program considered the prototype for success built on one-and-done transients, has no more freshmen among its top players than Duke.

NBA conflicted

So far the talk of restoring freshman ineligibility is speculative. It’s also uncertain which sports might be affected. Clearly, Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott means to include men’s basketball, calling the proposal “a stake in the ground” in a strategic struggle with the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver is amenable to greater restrictions on youngsters entering the pros. But the union remains resistant to adopting rules such as those governing baseball (go pro following high school, or stay in college for three years) and football (no draft eligibility until three years after high school). “We’ve tried to be patient, and the preference would still be for the NBA and its players association to figure out a more progressive approach to the health and well-being of its athletes,” Scott said. “But if not, then we are going to look at some ways to address it. That includes the possibility of freshman ineligibility.”

So much for the pretense that shelving first-year collegians is an educational initiative.

Any flat prohibition on freshman competition would likely cause more players with pro aspirations to skip college, whether or not they’re as good as they believe. Especially if, as some advocate, there would be no freshman teams.

Several of the ACC’s best freshmen are cool to reinstating the restriction. “I don’t think it would be a good idea to make freshmen ineligible,” said UNC’s Jackson. “I think nowadays there are freshmen that can come in and handle it and play right away. I feel like if you’re good enough, you should be able to play. I think right now the system has it just about right.”

Jahlil Okafor, the nation’s most acclaimed newcomer, added,” I’m happy it’s not a rule this year because I’ve had the time of my life playing here at Duke my freshman year.”

Richard Carmichael, faculty representative for athletics at Wake Forest since 2003, is not a fan of the proposed change, although he despises one-and-done players dropping by college without any real intention of seeking an education. “The argument, of course, is, it will help with academics,” he says of freshman ineligibility. “If an institution is really interested in doing that, they can already do it, just by red-shirting the kid, and he still has four years to play.”

Moreover, as Carmichael noted, starting in the 2016 academic year, the NCAA will require a higher GPA and more high school core classes for student-athletes entering college. Those who fail to meet the standards will be red-shirted as freshmen.

Carmichael, 73, played basketball for the Deacons from 1962 to 1964, when freshmen were ineligible, and felt cheated by having to sit out a season. “It didn’t help me at all,” says the Wake mathematics professor, who interrupted toying with a theorem to be interviewed. “Why? Because I was an interested student. I wanted to do well academically, and I wanted to do well athletically. In fact, if I had played as a freshman ... I firmly believe I would have been more confident (on the court) as a sophomore.”

Costs and equity

N.C. State athletics director Debbie Yow has plenty of questions about costs and equity, including the ramifications of imposing freshman ineligibility on good students. “Would you do it for everyone?” she asks. “Why? If a player comes out of high school with a 3.5 GPA, why is he or she denied the opportunity to play? If you exempt a 3.5 subset, where is the substantive, empirical, statistical data to support the cutoffs that you identify? You better have those because you’re going to get sued.”

Kevin White, the Duke AD, has an answer for Yow. “The data is pretty interesting; there is no data to say that this is a good idea,” he says. “There is an abundance of empirical data, academic performance data, that would suggest there is no reason for us to move in that direction at the moment.”

That’s not the only reason Duke is opposed to the proposal, according to White. “Quite frankly, we find it discriminatory,” given that 67 percent of basketball players and 51 percent of football players nationwide whose opportunity would be restricted “happen to be ethnic minority.”

Then, there is the added expense of providing “more scholarships and programmatic support” for those two sports, and perhaps women’s basketball, with freshmen sitting out. “Say goodbye to a half-dozen Olympic sports per campus,” White says.

So far, however, no argument or setback has dissuaded reformers from the appropriateness of freshman ineligibility. “It’s about trying to better align intercollegiate athletics with the mission and purpose of the university,” insists Todd Turner, an athletics consultant who previously served as AD at four major-college programs. But, he concedes, “it isn’t going to happen. It’s fun to talk about it, but I don’t think anybody’s going to have the courage to do that.”

Assuming there remains a compelling reason to want to, when so much else needs to be fixed.