Northwestern AD: 'Shame on us' for allowing NBA to shape eligibility rule

B1G officials still looks to year of readiness as vital toward academic, athletic success

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ROSEMONT, Ill. — Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany unveiled a plan last month called “Education First, Athletics Second” that called for freshman ineligibility to help athletes adjust to college life and academics before competitions.

While the reception nationally is tepid for ineligibility — including from Ohio State Athletics Director Gene Smith — most Big Ten administrators like how Delany’s proposal has framed a national discussion about the mix of academics with athletics.

“There doesn’t seem to be a national momentum to doing that, but there is a lot of national momentum about the discussion of student-athletes and their academic experience and their time demands,” Iowa Athletics Director Gary Barta said from the league’s spring athletics meetings. “If that’s where it leads us, that’s good.”

Furthering the national discussion from within the autonomous five-conference structure — the Big Ten, Big 12, SEC, ACC and Pac-12 — and broadly among other Division I conferences now appears the goal. Delany suggested an imbalance in graduation success rates for men’s basketball and football with other sports suggests delaying athletics for a year could improve those statistics.

Northwestern Athletics Director Jim Phillips introduced several topics that could reshape the readiness message. That includes shortening the playing season, delaying initial eligibility and strictly interpreting the 20-hours-per-week athletics rule. Phillips openly questioned the length and volume of the basketball season.

“When is enough enough?” Phillips said. “I just think we’ve gotten to the point where it is time for a timeout and everything should be on the table. And it is time for a let’s ... nothing’s sacred, let’s just do the right thing for our student athletes and let’s do the right thing for the next iteration for what college sports should be.”

Purdue Athletics Director Morgan Burke said allowing athletes to take a day off — literally — is vital. Video review for athletes, however, is more difficult to curtail.

“We have four quarterbacks at Purdue that are all dean’s list students right now. If they want to come in at 10 o’clock and watch film, are you going to tell them no?” Burke asked. “It’s a little tricky. The whole question about are you pressuring the kids to watch film and video, that seems to be the biggest culprit, the whole video/film issue. That one’s a hard one to solve. You don’t tell the chemistry major they can’t go in the lab. But there’s a point of diminishing returns.”

Another concern is about the length of a sports season. Before the NCAA granted freshman eligibility in 1972, the Division I men’s basketball champion averaged 30.1 games the previous 10 seasons. The last 10 years the NCAA Division I champion has averaged 39.7 games. The men’s basketball season opens in early November. Football permanently added a 12th regular-season game in 2006 and this year included the inaugural College Football Playoff, in which champion Ohio State played 15 games.

An impetus for freshman ineligibility in part is fashioning a plan outside of the high-profile one-and-done rule for college basketball. The NBA’s collective bargaining agreement requires eligible players to be at least 19 years old and removed from high school for one year. That has set up college basketball to become a feeder system for the NBA, to which Phillips decried, “frankly speaking, shame on us.”

“We’ve allowed the National Basketball Association to dictate what our rules are or influence what our rules are at the collegiate level,” Phillips said. “I think they look at us as the minor leagues and so when you see the one-and-dones and there’s a lot of attention on the one-and-dones, but you’re talking about 10 or 12 kids a year. But there’s 460,000 student-athletes playing sports across every division. Nobody feels good about kids going to a school for a semester and then leaving. That’s absurd.”

To help schools with roster management should freshman ineligibility pass, Delany has proposed adding seven scholarships to football and three for men’s basketball while providing an equal number of scholarships to women’s sports.

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