By Alexander Hyres
In February, the Big Ten Conference held a lengthy discussion with faculty, administrators, and student-athletes about how to “keep education central to the mission of college sports.” Whether education has actually been the central to mission of college sports in the last one-hundred years is questionable; however, the discussion did produce a proposal called “The Year of Readiness.” To help division one athletes adjust to the academic life of campus, the proposal called for freshman ineligibility in basketball and football. The proposal was only meant to spark conversation, according to Big Ten Commissioner James E. Delany, since the Big Ten would not consider freshman ineligibility without a national consensus. Although the proposal generated conversations amongst other member schools in the NCAA—including a dialogue between Big Ten and Pac-12 conference officials—the proposal has yet to influence any change in freshman eligibility policies.
Such a change would mark a significant shift in the current ideology of most division one college football and basketball programs. While the NCAA and its member schools claim to view division one college football and basketball players as student-athletes, in reality, they are often treated as athlete-students. Such a change would not only mark a shift in decades-long ideology but drastically change the competitive landscape. True freshman have had a tremendous impact on division one college basketball, and to a lesser extent, college football during the past few decades. Without Grayson Allen, Jalil Okafor, Tyus Jones, and Justice Winslow, it is difficult to imagine Duke capturing last season’s national championship in basketball. The same could be said for other recent national championships teams—Syracuse in 2003 and Kentucky in 2012. College football teams have also become increasingly aided by true freshman reinforcements, particularly positions such as receiver and running back on offense and defensive back and linebacker on defense.
Given the possible impacts to competition and revenue generation, it is not hard to see why the NCAA and member groups would be hesitant to even discuss freshman ineligibility. Starting a conversation may appear to be a good-faith effort. Or it could be viewed as yet another means by which the NCAA and member schools can control their Athlete-students. Either way, the obstacles and challenges to developing consensus and implementing such a policy run deeper than the current debate and manifest historical political and economic ideology prevalent in the United States since freshman first became eligible to play varsity sports. In this post, I will examine the how and why freshman became eligible in the 1960s and 1970s.
Freshman Eligibility Changes
In 1968, the NCAA implemented changes to freshman eligibility in all sports—except football and basketball. The NCAA and member schools cited financial reasons for the changes in eligibility. Before changing the requirements, most division one programs fielded separate junior varsity and varsity teams. After changing the eligibility requirements, division one programs fielded a single team for each sport. In 1972, football and basketball followed suit. Football—a sport that relies heavily on equipment—needed any cost-cutting measures within reach in era before large television contracts and conference revenue sharing schemes. That is how the NCAA and member schools explained the changes to the public at least. Other factors present at the time also helped sell the change in freshman eligibility, including the cost of adding women’s sports to cooperated with federal Title IX mandates.
The late 1960s and 1970s marked a shift in political and economic thinking in the United States. During this period in American history, neoliberal ideas and practices began proliferating in universities, think tanks, and eventually the public consciousness. Underpinning neoliberal ideas was a belief in liberating the individual. Furthermore, “Deregulation, privatization, and withdrawal of the state from many areas of social provision” became more normative in political and economic thinking. While one could view the change in freshman eligibility as a cost-cutting measure, it could also be viewed as freeing the individual (the student-athlete) from the NCAA’s regulatory powers. Thus, it could be argued, freeing the true freshman to play varsity sports fit within the political and economic ideological environment present in that moment.
During this era, African American student-athletes began enrolling, at an exponential rate, at historically white colleges and universities during the late 1960s and 1970s. Many African Americans played division one college football and basketball. Perhaps changes in eligibility were also tied to changes in who was playing these sports. Eleven years after freshman became eligible for varsity sports, Joe Paterno discussed the impact of NCAA sports on African American athletes. Paterno noted how universities had exploited African American athletes and then claimed, “We have taken kids and sold them on bouncing a ball and running with a football…We cannot afford to do that to another generation. We cannot afford to have kids come into our institutions and not be prepared to take advantage of what the great education institutions in this country can do for them.” A proposal portrayed as a cost-cutting measure may have saved money for NCAA member universities but, more importantly, it also allowed them to exploit African American athletes for an extra year. Universities may not have explicitly set out to exploit African Americans; however, the consequences speak louder than any original intentions.
Future of Freshman Eligibility
The NCAA and member schools have grown so accustomed to exploiting Athlete-students that a change in freshman eligibility seems highly unlikely. African Americans in particular, a significant presence on many college basketball and football rosters, continue to be exploited by the NCAA and member schools. Some may argue that “exploitation” is too strong of a word to describe the relationship between the universities and these athletes. The university provides education, housing, health care, books, and a stipend amongst other benefits. The amount distributed to the athlete-student, however, pales in comparison to the revenue generated by their labor. Until the balance shifts heavily towards the athlete-students, exploitation is the most appropriate word.
Furthermore, other obstacles remain to be resolved. The biggest obstacle to a changing in such a policy? National consensus. Without collaboration, no conference will entertain such a policy and possibly place themselves at a disadvantage against other conferences. Additionally, even if making freshman ineligible might benefit his or her development as a student and an athlete, both universities and athlete-students seem at least passively content with the current arrangement. Universities can profit earlier from players playing as true freshman, while true freshman can make the most of their time on campus by playing right away.
Alexander Hyres is a graduate student in the Social Foundations of Education at the University of Virginia. His research interests include the history of education, African American experience, leadership, and urban education policy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org on Twitter @hyres376.
 Ronald A. Smith, Pay for Play: A History of Big-Time College Athletic Reform (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010), 154; For more about changes to freshman eligibility and its impact on college football, see Jason Hersey, “NCAA’s Decision to Allow Freshman Eligibility Changed Football Landscape,” NewsOK (Norman, OK), August 27, 2012. http://newsok.com/article/3704386
 David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, 2-3.
 Smith, Pay for Play, 156.