In case you missed it earlier today, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany released a 12 page paper to numerous reporters in order to advance a national discussion on how to bring balance to a college athlete's academic (and athletic) needs. The principle suggestions, like removing freshman eligibility, or adding scholarships to football and basketball, have been mocked a lot on Twitter. It's easy to make fun of Delany, or these suggestions, but perhaps they deserve an serious examination.
So first, and I understand this might be a bit of a controversial take here on this little corner of sports internet, but I actually agree with the basic gist of what Delany is saying. There is substantial evidence, including recent testimony under oath, that the student-athlete experience for football and men's basketball players is dramatically skewed towards the athlete side of the ledger, and if college athletics are actually serious about preserving some sense of balance in this experience, then substantial and structural reforms are going to be needed. Rather than stamping out the final vestiges of the college athletic system and going 100% formalized minor league, I'd agree with Delany and the NCAA that college athletics has some merit.
That doesn't mean that there aren't two serious problems here though. The first? The messenger.
Jim Delany may be theoretically correct about everything in this entire 12 page paper, but his recent actions as Big Ten commissioner make it difficult if not impossible to take him seriously. You cannot preach balance in college athletics, or express concern about the amount of time students must spend on their sport, and then add Rutgers and Maryland to your midwest based college athletics league. You know what really hurts the student athlete experience? Making basketball players in Minnesota and Nebraska trudge across the country for a midweek basketball game.
Delany's venture into conference expansion helped launch the most recent round of national realignment, leading to many more geographically-stretched schedules, which hurt students. These moves were not made with the student in mind, or even the consumer (fans weren't exactly clamoring for Rutgers, and since Rutgers finished or is currently last or second to last in eight sports this season, and hasn't finished higher than fourth in any, they still aren't), but out of business concerns. And the Big Ten was savvy to do it, but if Delany can't sacrifice business needs for the greater good of athletes, how can he expect others to as well?
But even leaving aside the messenger for a second, the proposed solutions are problematic as well.
I think it's fair to give Delany some slack here, as these aren't intended to be finished proposals. In the letter, he states that he's hoping for a "dialogue", which is fine. But that doesn't mean that the principle solution that's being advocated here, the "year of readiness", isn't problematic on multiple levels.
Delany is probably right that a "year of readiness" would have a positive academic impact. Not only would it theoretically allow a student athlete more time to focus on academic remediation without the pressures of immediate athletic performance, it would allow all student-athletes time to acclimate emotionally, socially and personally, to a drastically different environment. Even academically prepared, non-athlete students may struggle in their freshman year as they acclimate to living on their own, planning their own schedules, etc.
But if you're serious about promoting student well-being first, Delany should probably pitch this across all sports, not just football and men's basketball. While he's right that the incentive to cheat is more pronounced among these populations (and that these sports dominate the percentage of academic fraud cases), the criticism of potentially singling out African-American students, or male students, would be very difficult to ignore, as he even acknowledges in the letter. Proposing this across all sports would do well to neuter critiques that the motivations are more athletically related than academic.
While some academic benefit would likely occur from keeping freshman ineligible (as well as social, personal, etc), if our true goal is to provide a meaningful college education, we need to also recognize the limits of what can be remedied by a freshman ineligibility. If a recruit is coming to college from a high poverty school and boasts an ACT of say, 19, even taking a year to catch up on remedial classes will probably not be enough to meaningfully catch that student up to take college classes, especially at a rigorous university -- like say, the ones in the Big Ten. We have CNN reports saying we have some college athletes who are reading at a 4th grade level. One year of tutoring isn't going to get that person ready for English 105.
The NCAA has fiddled with eligibility standards lots of times. They recently decided to dramatically increase those minimum standards in 2016, which makes the timing of this paper a little curious. Why pitch a dramatic overhaul without even looking at the data from your last one? And if you don't think your last one has the capacity to change things meaningfully, why do it at all?
One thing the NCAA could potentially do, to show that they are serious about this, is use their formidable political and financial clout as a force for alleviating the academic achievement gap before a student-athlete would enroll in college. Instead of using political lobbying on say, prohibiting unionization or pay to athletes, they could use it to promote anti-poverty measures, or to provide aid to states or school districts. They could use the carrot of hosting NCAA events as a way to promote certain academic policies. The NCAA can't do it themselves, of course, but being proactive in helping students before they actually get to college, or showing that they care, would mean more for student achievement.
The other thing, of course, is the elephant in the room that Delany managed to dodge, and that's actually sharing more money with the players. It seems silly for Delany to float ideas that have been attempted and eluded by our best education policy academics (if we had figured out how to " design a standardized academic competency test that mitigates cultural biases", we'd be using it instead of the SAT, or our state level tests), and ignore the idea of sharing any money with players as part of this proposal. There is no reason why sharing some of the income, which would be morally and ethically right, can't be a part of also advancing the goal of academics. A stipend could reduce incentives to cheat in multiple ways. It could be held in a trust and released after graduation. It could be handled in a myriad of other ways, and the demands to share this money aren't going away. Ignoring it further makes the rest of the advice difficult to take seriously.
Having a conversation about how to improve athlete academic outcomes is important. It's what the NCAA should actually be doing, instead of being the brand police on tournament cups, or castigating those who dared to get discounted tattoos. There are other things the NCAA could do as well, like mandate coaching contracts be tied to other academic benchmarks, or replace the APR with a system that better measures actual academic advancement.
But that conversation is hard to have with a person whose sincerity can be questioned thanks to past actions. I'm not sure who could take up this banner, but it isn't Delany. And these ideas, even if proposed in good faith, are probably not the direction the Big Ten, or college athletics, should go down to actually help students.