The Case For Freshman Ineligibility

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan took the opportunity of “March Madness” to note the scandalously poor academic performance of the unpaid professional basketball players who NCAA schools pretend are student athletes.

Maggie Severns from the New America Foundation proposes trying to tackle this by restoring the principle that freshmen are ineligible to play big time sports and ought to focus on studying instead:

To really get players on track to graduate, the NCAA should take a tip from its old playbook: freshmen ineligibility. We believe that the NCAA should make all Division 1 football and men’s basketball players ineligible to play during their freshmen year so they have time to adjust and ground themselves academically during the time they need it most. Then, student athletes would at least have a handle on academics before trying to balance their dual roles.

For much of the 20th century, freshmen ineligibility was standard for all varsity college sports. In 1972, however, the NCAA overturned the rule, mostly because colleges felt they were losing too much money off of scholarships and expenses on freshmen players who were not earning their keep on the court.

However, revenue among college sports conferences have been skyrocketing in recent years, with the Southeastern Conference (SEC) reaping over $1 billion in revenue this year alone. Considering the massive amounts of money colleges are currently making off of their unpaid student athletes, they should be able to afford a change that aids the long-term well-being of their players.

There’s something to this, but it fails to fully account for the screwy legal, political, and economic framework around Division I college basketball and football. After all, it’s not as if these programs don’t have labor costs. But the NCAA cartel acts to ensure that relative to a free market outcome, the labor costs will disproportionately flow to coaches, athletic directors, and other older staff members and flow away from the young players who are doing the majority of the work. As Severns observes, the operations of this cartel tend to undermine the ostensible academic objectives of the institutions it represents. But both the 1972 decision she deplores and the low graduation rates Duncan deplores make perfect sense according to the logic of the cartel—”schools” want to minimize player-related labor costs in order to maximize the incomes of coaches and administrators. To actually turn this situation around, you’d have to smash the cartel.