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February 04, 2004

Knight Commission: Frosh Ineligibility Proposed

FROM THE NATION'S CAPITAL COMES WORD that the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics convened this week for its ‘Vatican III’ for college sports reform. Initial reactions from college athletics onlookers were that the Commission was involved in the same old, same old.

The commission was born in 1991, charged with improving college athletics through a host of initiatives involving academic reform, creeping commercialism, escalating athletics budgets and compliance abuses.

The key proposal arising from the first day’s discussion was a revival of the freshman-ineligibility rule, which was revoked in 1973. Some say that it’s been all downhill ever since. Others (citing one-year-and-out Carmelo Anthony as the latest example) say things have never been better.

Those forwarding the proposal think that the reprise of the “freshman year in residence” program would allow freshmen and junior college transfers to adapt academically and socially, while potentially competing on low profile junior varsity teams. It is thought that such a program might boost grades and graduation rates.

The commission’s reports in 1991 and 2001 called for greater presidential control to police compliance transgressions by coaches and athletes, as well as decelerate the “arms race” among the elite athletic programs.

Lobbying for the freshman-ineligibility rule were two prominent ex-ACC basketball coaches: UNC’s Dean Smith and Virginia’s Terry Holland. “Men’s basketball has got a problem with graduation rates,” said Smith sternly.

Meanwhile, Holland advocated an incentives / disincentives method as a novel way to split up the NCAA’s $6 billion CBS advertising contract: channel incremental funds to schools recruiting players with academic records at a par with that school’s general student population.

Holland minced no words when he said, “It seems to me that, whether they want to be or not, Brand and the other presidents are prisoners of this huge cash generating colossus. No one can convince me they care one whit about the academic achievement of athletes. I don’t see them backing any reform that represents any risk to them personally.” Hmm. Here’s a man who speaks his mind. No ambiguity there.

Despite the interest by some, there was far from a groundswell of support for the freshman-ineligibility proposal. Many others thought that having freshmen sit out a year would not be fair to freshmen who excelled academically.

Myles Brand, NCAA president, said, "One shoe does not fit all. You need to give physical prodigies the opportunity to shine." He supports a “three-then-pro” plan wherein student-athletes would not be permitted to turn pro until the end of their junior year. However, it is unclear how Brand’s proposal would improve graduation rates.

To be sure, the Knight Commission is charged with correcting the entire range of problems that are part of college athletics. However, part of the problem is that not all constituencies agree that there are problems in the first place. It is in the interest of individual schools, coaches, conferences and alumni groups—especially among the big profit-generating programs—to keep much of the status quo.

Too much influence from TV dollars? The several dozen programs reaping millions from bowl games would vociferously disagree. Raise the academic standards for incoming student-athletes? That would deny opportunities, say the schools with abysmal graduation rates. Limit coaches’ outside income? Onerous big brotherism, say the coaches. Calm down the “arms race?” Alumni and boosters would say they just want to stay competitive.

The Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, former co-chairman of the commission, stated in 1991, “We are not in the entertainment business, nor are we a minor league for professional sports.” Many might have believed statement made a little more than a decade ago. However, if anyone said that now with a straight face, he would be laughed away from the microphone.

(this excerpt was drawn primarily from the Chronicle for Higher Education of 2-3-04 and 7-6-01, with other portions from the Washington Post of 2-3-04, plus commentary from College Athletics Clips)