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Big Ten commish: College sports will fail if athlete education ignored

"The primary purpose of intercollegiate football and men’s basketball is not to serve as minor leagues to the NFL and NBA," Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said in a 12-page report.

By
Doug G. Ware
The Kentucky Wildcats men's basketball team lost several freshmen players to the NBA Draft following a run to the 2015 NCAA Final Four. Photo: UPI/Bill Greenblatt
The Kentucky Wildcats men's basketball team lost several freshmen players to the NBA Draft following a run to the 2015 NCAA Final Four. Photo: UPI/Bill Greenblatt | License Photo

ROSEMONT, Ill., April 18 (UPI) -- The head of one of the NCAA's "Power Five" athletic conferences believes college sports are doomed if the industry can't defend educating players, and continues on as a pseudo minor league for professional organizations like the NFL and NBA, he said in a critical report.

Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany on Friday released the 12-page outline that casts a foreboding shadow over collegiate athletics, owing mostly to the recent spate of "one and done" players who pass through the amateur level on their way to the pros -- and aren't getting the education they're on campus for in the first place.

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His message is simple: If they can't say education is the top priority for student-athletes, then college sports will inevitably fail.

"If we could send a reasonable yet unmistakable signal that intercollegiate athletics prioritizes education over athletics, why would we not do so?" Delany asks at the start of the report. "We are at a critical moment in the evolution of intercollegiate athletics."

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In men's basketball, the term "one and done" has become increasingly used to describe certain athletes who show up to campus for one year and immediately bolt for the pros -- not for the educational opportunity it provides, but because the NBA requires all players to be at least one year removed from high school.

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To address the problem, Delany proposed in his report what's certain to be a highly controversial starting point: Freshmen ineligibility. In other words, student-athletes won't be able to play their first year -- which, he argues, might allow them to focus their time on classes rather than competition.

"Prospects would be free to choose intercollegiate athletics with the understanding that participation in athletics is incidental to a long-term educational commitment, not the primary purpose for attending college," Delany wrote. "The year of readiness would allow student-athletes to have a year of assimilation to campus life before worrying about competition and the pressures and scrutiny that would follow."

Delany's report comes at a time when outcry over collegiate athletics is perhaps at its highest level in history. Numerous allegations have surfaced over the past decade about athletes' academic ineligibility, institutionalized fraud, favoritism, NCAA violations, and so forth -- the insinuation being that some student-athletes, and even some educators, couldn't care less if players actually earn a degree.

While the idea of freshman ineligibility will assuredly be criticized, Delany actually has history on his side. Before 1972, the NCAA actually did prohibit freshmen from playing in varsity sports, for reasons similar to those cited by the Big Ten commissioner.

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For years, coaches, conferences and other athletic officials have sought to address the growing regularity of short-term student-athletes. Some raised the issue in February, and also floated the idea of freshman ineligibility. In his report, Delany even acknowledged that might not be the answer, but said he's raising the prospect simply to spur discussion that will hopefully lead to a solution.

The Big Ten chief's concerns, though, are limited to football and men's basketball -- because they are the biggest money-makers, because they funnel players to professional leagues, and because they provide the funding for every other sport at the university level.

"Although football and men's basketball stand alone in certain ways, they are not severable from the fabric of intercollegiate athletics; in fact, they are vital," he wrote. "If those two sports are not healthy, then the collegiate model is not healthy."

"If we cannot defend -- through an examination of actions and results as opposed to words -- that education is the paramount factor in our decision-making process, then the enterprise stands as a house of cards," he continued. "The more educationally sound the collegiate experience, the more sustainable intercollegiate athletics becomes."

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But it's not just collegiate athletic officials, however, who are concerned student-athletes might be leaving campus too soon. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has said he wants to change his league's minimum age requirement for incoming players from 19 to 20 years old.

The NFL, which has sports' highest minimum age requirement, mandates its players be three years removed from high school. The reasoning is that football is an extremely physical contact sport, and that prospects need to wait to allow themselves to physically develop.

"The time is upon us to have a serious conversation about restoring the health of the collegiate model -- about establishing unequivocally that in all sports, education comes first and athletics come second," Delany's report concluded. "The primary purpose of intercollegiate football and men's basketball is not to serve as minor leagues to the NFL and NBA.

"Let the national discussion begin."

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