"Freshman INeligibility" by John U. Bacon

Submitted by Section 1 on October 6th, 2013 at 12:22 PM

Some of you might have heard this brief on-air essay by John U. Bacon last Friday on one of the three stations of the Michigan Radio network.

I waited until Michigan Radio posted it online before starting this thread.  You can read the post and listen to the Bacon podcast at this LINK.

Bacon's suggestion is a simple, elegant, traditional solution to much of what ails collegiate football and basketball right now; end the eligibility for freshmen in intercollegiate athletics. 

John's suggestion is not in a vacuum.  He is explicitly linking it to the establishment of minor leagues for basketball and football, and the implicit message is to push athletes who are less interested in four years of college and more interested in professional sports, to go directly to professional sports.

What John does in this essay is little more than to set out a premise for discussion.  As a boradcast radio podcast, he is not given enough time or space to develop a full brief on the subject.  Which makes it particularly sutiable for further discussion on the MGoBoard.

This is one of the more definitive and forceful policy positions to be taken by Bacon, who is customarily a reporter and storyteller.  And I could not agree with him more.  Freshman ineligibility would unquestionably be good, in just about every imaginable way, for student-athletes as athletic students.

Freshman ineligibility would only be bad for students who wish to use college exposure to get to professional leagues.  Let those players go.  Colleges should not be capitalizing on those players, and those players should not be using their college days in that fashion.  Freshman ineligibility would actually help the development of developmental leagues.  There would be, or should be, players who do not want to waste a year of their athletic development as a university student.  Again, let them go.  We'd be left with a population of student-athletes who are more dedicated to their collegiate careers.

Talk amongst yourselves.



October 6th, 2013 at 12:50 PM ^

You're missing the point. It's not about handling both; it's about being a student first. That's the whole point, and that's the whole problem that Bacon is identifying.

The whole paying players bit? Yeah, that's a consequence in part of freshmen eligibility. If freshmen were ineligible still, there would be a heightened demand for a minor league for the NFL and NBA that would funnel the non-serious students toward those routes.

This is how it was done until the formation of the NCAA in 1976, and since the NCAA has only made the title "student-athlete" a laughingstock in college football and basketball, we should restore the "student" bit. You're a student first. You're an athlete second. That's the argument, and I support it. College football will always have passionately loyal fans. But college football should not be minor league football.


October 6th, 2013 at 1:00 PM ^

No, I completely get your point, but you're missing mine while you bluster about the good ol' days. You think that because some kids can't handle both parts of "student-athlete", then all of them should have to sit out a year. But this completely misses that all of these kids are different, some can handle both, some can handle only one, and some can't handle either part. There are kids that can handle both as a freshman, and all you're doing is cutting out a great opportunity for them. 

You seem to think that if we incentivize the kids who are primarily thinking of going pro in a sport from going to college, then college sports will become pure and clean. I can't help but think how laughably naive that is.



October 6th, 2013 at 1:30 PM ^

Not if they're guaranteed a fifth year to play four, which is what would need to be paired with freshman ineligibility IMO.

I believe the most seriously corrosive problems in big-time college football and basketball are academic fraud and financial irregularities, and I believe they most frequently involve kids who are marginal students at best. Kids who are putting in honest efforts in the classroom don't need papers written for them, and kids who are truly interested in obtaining a college education and degree are far less likely to jeopardize that opportunity by accepting impermissible benefits. Kids who are uninterested in the educational component of going to college are going to be much less interested in enrolling in the first place if they have to sit out their freshman year in order to concentrate on college academic work.

The problem with Bacon's vision—which I share in principle—is that there is no indication at all that the NFL is going to lift a single finger to make it possible for 18-year old kids who want to play professional football without having to attend college.

And all the old farts who long for the days of freshmen ineligibility also have to acknowledge that if it had still been in place in 1979, one of the most famous plays in Michigan football history doesn't happen, and we tie or maybe even lose to Indiana.


October 6th, 2013 at 1:42 PM ^

You keep trying to say that I think some kids can't handle being both a student and an athlete. I have never said that, nor have I alluded to that. Where are you getting that from?

"You seem to think that if we incentivize the kids who are primarily thinking of going pro in a sport from going to college, then college sports will become pure and clean. I can't help but think how laughably naive that is."

Hockey? Baseball? Sports with minor leagues and college leagues. But when's the last time you heard about a hockey or baseball "pay-to-play" scandal?

I mean, come on. Fact is a good half of the athletes in major collegiate football/basketball programs are there to try and make it to the pros in their sport. It's not about the education. Trey Burke? Manny Harris? Donovan Warren?

But even the ones who graduate aren't always there for the education. We know that football players tend to get funneled into easy classes. Degrees in general studies and the like. This does not mean that Zoltan Mesko is not smart and able to handle both student and athlete. Hell, it doesn't even mean that the non-serious students can't handle both a challenging major and playing their sport. But it means that his many teammates--who think of themselves as athletes first and students second--should have other avenues to the pros.

The grander picture is trying to force the NFL/NBA's hands to create a system for non-serious students to get to the pros that doesn't involve something serious, like a college education. The Zoltan Meskos of the world can sit out a year and put serious focus on study while developing their skills to play in their sophomore year. I'm sure many of the serious students would hardly mind having an opportunity to get their feet settled in their studies before worrying about national attention on the quality of their play on Saturday.


October 6th, 2013 at 2:43 PM ^

I believe the NBA does have options. The first is they only require one year graduated from high school. The second is the NBA D- league (the D stands for developmental).
If the NFL created a developmental program where kids were paid to develop their bodies for three years while they studied the game, the alternate avenue would be established with no further costs to colleges. I think that was partially what NFL Europe was supposed to be but it fell apart because no one wanted to watch it.


October 6th, 2013 at 6:00 PM ^

The problem is that most of us come from places that don't have resources and academics. So when we get to college we already know we are not going to be doctors and lawyers. People talk about successful student athletes and they also need to talk about that those specific players have a common background with access to good education in their life and where they live.

Also in college there's not enough time in the day for us to take the classes we want. I couldn't take calculus. We know that only so many people go to the NFL and that's the better chance we have to get out where we're from. I wish it was different. Maybe a better solution is that after playing we get two more years to just focus on school.

Section 1

October 6th, 2013 at 9:42 PM ^

who has the aptitude and desire to earn a degree, should always be welcome at Michigan.  My gripe is not, and never will be, with the gutsy kids from Pahokee, etc.  I'd welcome all of them who can cut it at Michigan.  And I'm more than happy with the special academic resources devoted to them.  They deserve it all, for all of the other demands on their time.  Guys like Mr. Smith worked their asses off for Michigan.  I hope -- and I'd like to think -- that they had the time of their lives and will never ever regret a minute of it.  NFL or not.  I'd just like the balance to be more "student," and less "pre-NFL."  And definitely not "semi-pro player in the Michigan Sports Merchandising Program."  Not to rob players like Mr. Smith but instead for the benefit of players like Mr. Smith.



October 6th, 2013 at 10:23 PM ^

I thought it was interesting that the CFPA was essentially asking for this (extended post eligiblity scholarship), a stipend, and health coverage for injuries sustained playing. All reasonable things. Probably the saddest part of that Oklahoma State article were the guys wishing they basically had another shot at a college education after things went badly.

For the record, I took three semesters of calculus. They were by far my worst grades at Michigan. The only time I really needed calculus was in my structural engineering classes (which didn't go very well either). Haven't used it since, so you'll probably be allright.

However, I do wish guys who finish their careers either at Michigan or soon after in the NFL had a chance to go back for a second major. (Thinking of those "majoring in something other than sports" NCAA ads.)


October 6th, 2013 at 12:36 PM ^

I have a difficult time seeing what this would really accomplish in football. Freshmen can't go pro anyway and there is no viable minor league system.

Red is Blue

October 6th, 2013 at 1:32 PM ^

Suggest you listen to Bacon's audio essay. His premise is the real problem is that the NFL and NBA have no minor leagues and no incentive to create them. Colleges could force that to happen by making freashmen ineligible. What I don't get is why these leagues weren't forced to develop minor leagues back in the days when freshmen used to be ineligible.


October 6th, 2013 at 12:38 PM ^

One problem that comes to mind is that college football will probably be much more competitive than any minor league football teams. So as a teenager who wants to go pro wouldn't college athletics still be the better option?

Bando Calrissian

October 6th, 2013 at 12:45 PM ^

"Colleges should not be capitalizing on those players, and those players should not be using their college days in that fashion."

I mostly agree with Bacon's article, but just to play devil's advocate... Why shouldn't athletes be able to use their education and extracurricular opportunities at Michigan to further their careers just like everyone else? Just because they may want to be professional athletes means they shouldn't be able to use college athletics to orient themselves towards their intended careers?

If I'm a business student, I can use my coursework, student organizations, and university resources to move towards a career in business. If I'm a creative writing major, I can use coursework, student publications, etc. to become a poet. If I want to become an engineer, there are no shortage of curricular and extracurricular resources and opportunities.

But college athletes shouldn't be able to do the same thing if they want to be professionals?


October 6th, 2013 at 1:51 PM ^

That has changed.  You are admitted for the start of your soph year w/ another group of special admits to start the beginning of their freshman year.

Still though, even if you're not admitted into the business school until a certain point in college, you can still spend your time before admission taking all sorts of pre-req business courses, getting involved in business organizations, etc.  You aren't "ineligible from playing" pre-business school student in both class and extracurriculars (just like a pre-law or pre-med student).  Not really a fair comparison.

snarling wolverine

October 6th, 2013 at 1:07 PM ^

I think the issue is that playing sports isn't something you can do for all that long.  A businessman at 25 can still be a businessman at 60, but an athlete at 25 will be doing something else with his/her life later on, so it doesn't hurt to prepare them for whatever that is - especially given the sad fact that a crazy percentage of them squander all their sports money.  



October 6th, 2013 at 12:49 PM ^

I dont think this would work. 

If I'm a top 10 basketball recruit, and the rule is I have to wait a year to join the NBA, I'm either going to:

A: Go play a year in Brazil, Spain, Germany, France, or some other country that a good pro basketball league 

B: Do a year of strength training and conditioning, becomeing a better athlete, putting on weight, then going into the draft 20lbs bigger, and better game. 


For football, about 50% of players are redshirted anyways, so I don't feel like there's an issue there.  Plus, a kid is going to be on campus a minimum of 3 years, so 1-and-done isn't an issue.  

I just think the negatives outweigh the positives in a situation like this

Mmmm Hmmm

October 6th, 2013 at 5:16 PM ^

Playing professionally overseas as a way to avoid an unpaid year in college did not seem to help Jeremy Tyler's NBA Draft position much--he was expected to be a lottery pick and ended up in the second round after having trouble with his overseas club.

That said, it could work better for another American high schooler, although they would probably have to be pretty mature (and have the life experience necessary) to be able to deal with being a pro overseas in a country where they may or may not speak the language.

Red is Blue

October 6th, 2013 at 1:07 PM ^

Seems to me that the options you lay out for the basketball player support Bacon's idea. The athletes that only interested in college as a path to pro sports will find other paths. I personally don't think that the Kentucky basketball model (one and done, pseudo minor league) fits with what college ought to be about.

Team 101

October 6th, 2013 at 1:01 PM ^

This is never going to happen so it is at best a scholastic exercise.  The NFL and NBA have no interest in developing minor league systems.  MLB probably has no choice because of the history of the farm system, the lack of exposure for college baseball and the emergence of Latin American athletes who don't necessarily fit in a college based system.  NHL has similar history and issues with the more international flavor of the league.  Most hockey and baseball players aren't ready for the jump to the majors from college.

On the other side, too many alumni and fans like the college system the way it is and would not appreciate the reduced level of talent in exchange for a more student emphasis in the student athlete.

Other programs would have trouble functioning if freshmen were ineligle and it makes it hard to build a program if the freshmen can't play.  Note the rebuilding programs in basketball and football as examples.

Bacon's approach is appealing to those such as he do not like the changes that big money has on college sports.


October 6th, 2013 at 1:12 PM ^

Some perspective: The reason that college football started allowing freshmen to play was because the big schools had freshman teams that played one another, and the smaller schools couldn't afford to fund both a freshman team and the varsity team.

It was not the case that freshmen sat out a year and didn't participate in athletics. But there was better acclimation to the university because the freshman teams' games were out of the spotlight, and the training was designed to serve their needs as new college students.

The smaller schools pressured the NCAA to allow freshmen to play, and eventually it was voted in. At the time, it was thought to be something that would level the playing field for smaller schools.

Whether it accomplishes that is a matter of opinion, of course. 

The pro leagues don't care whether kids finish their degrees or not, since they pluck kids out early, and do in fact use the schools as developmental leagues. I have no idea whether this practice might be affected in a small way if kids can't play varsity as freshmen.

When I was at UM, freshmen were not allowed to play varsity. In general, college athletics seemed to be saner at the time, though clearly one's definition of what is sound changes as times change. However I think it's likely that the acclimation of kids to the college environment went more easily, and we didn't see the constant legal and ethical problems that have become so much a distatsteful part of college athletics (and yes, there were plenty of disadvantaged players on the squads then, just as now).

The question that Bacon doesn't address is whether turning back the clock is actually going to accomplish what he would like to see.  I don't know if the genie can be put back in the bottle.

Michigan Arrogance

October 6th, 2013 at 1:12 PM ^

This is the way to go, no doubt. I agree with Bacon and Schembechler, Canham, et al. have said the same.

Make freshmen ineligible-

that forces kids to evaluate their educational opportunities 1st (well, at least moreso than they do now)

it gets kids ready to play the game from a strength and prep standpoint and learn how to be a student

it will hinder the focus on recruiting sites, etc since no one will be playing for at least a year and a half from signing day.

it will get kids who don't care at all about being a student to find other avenues.



there will be some talent loss to Europe/NBDL/CFL/a new minor football league, but not so much that it would kill the sport.

You Only Live Twice

October 6th, 2013 at 1:21 PM ^

The idea is certainly sound.  I'm just not sure it's possible essentially turn back the clock to a different time.  Freshman ineligibility by itself might help address the problem but how many true freshmen play anyway?  It also doesn't seem fair to limit a young person's choices so early, if I'm understanding this correctly, right out of high school, to either choose college or a professional sports career when there are players who can, and do, earn their degrees and continue into the pros.  personally I'm also not in favor of anything that gives young people a reason to turn away from education.


As much as I love the idea of returning to that time and place where it wasn't a huge business, where students could sell their tickets and an average person could buy one from a scalper and see a game for a few bucks...where the student athletes were exactly that.. they showed up in regular classes... the concentration of wealth among alumni and donors, that has made it possible to construct the luxury seating in college stadiums, means that many are not going to share this view.


October 6th, 2013 at 1:22 PM ^

I like the idea in theory but in practice this can really screw up teams that lose a lot of players from coaching turmoil/injuries.  The inability to use true-freshman to pick up slack for those type of teams will mean potentially playing with less than 60 scholarship players at any given time.

If this is coupled with higher scholarship limits (maybe 100 instead of 85) then I think this is a reasonable move.


October 6th, 2013 at 1:46 PM ^

to competition at any level is always about development and advancement usually occurs based on any number of factors which are not universal for all. 

I see no point in denying first-year player eligibility as a way to improve the academic opportunity for some and the pro advancement of others. Whether or not certain players have professional sports ambitions and career mindsets rarely rests on whether they start their college careers playing soon after enrollment, at least as highly productive players. 

Johnny Manziel is an extraordinary exception. He won the Heisman as a true freshman. Would you have denied him the opportunity simply because the NCAA and college presidents are insistent upon making student-athlete a true and viable identity. 

I have heard both college coaches and administrators advocate this position over the years, but never convincingly. And the truth of the matter is, if you didn't have freshmen eligibility, then a lot of football programs would suffer during transitional seasons. 

Sports with smaller rosters, like basketball, where the Bacon argument is more brightly illuminated, are more adaptable to this limitation because the sport itself and athletic development is so elastic based on the availabiity of off-season competition through AAU play and other travel basketball programs. The same can't be said for a lot of other team sports, especially football, which is principally a one season activity with a lot of off-season conditioning and strength training. 

First of all, if the NBA and NFL wanted minor leagues, they could launch and finance them. And if they did, then certain athletes with professional aspirations would naturally gravitate to them. And there was a time when teams had them, back in the late 40's when World War II took so many athletes from college and professional ranks. This practice soon ended in the 60's when television dramatically changed the fortunes of pro football, giving it the kind of exposure that college football, vastly more popular, lacked.

So money and times have changed. But the truth is,  only a fraction of college athletes who play college football and basketball even make it professionally in their chosen sport. 

The NFL and NBA have always viewed the college talent pool as exploitable,  a ready source of talent. And they've taken great care to nurture this contiunued relationship by not challenging NCAA restrictions on early player movement. This is in part due to understanding the physical demands of the professional sport versus the one played collegiately are wholly different. One may be just as time-consuming as the other but certainly the college game is less physically challenging. 

However, in the end, this has always been about money, and saving it by not paying for lengthy player development, which pro baseball and hockey have always done. 

I remember when freshman ineligibility ruled college sports. And I also remember when Julius Erving was a freshman at the University of Massachusetts, that when his school played freshman and varsity doubleheaders, more fans used to attend his freshman games than would stay to watch the varsity right after. 

If you want to make academics more viable to student-athletes, then make academics and graduation requirements more accessible to athletes in their off time as athletes, instead of requiring them to be super human, and dedicate themselves to their sport by legimitely recognizing the demands on their time which their coaches and programs insist upon. 

If you want to deny freshmen eligibility in their first year as students then give them five-year scholarships and the opporturnity to complete their education at any point in any five year period in which they commit themselves to getting their degree regardless of when they leave school. And make the NFL and NBA accountable for this by charging an education tax for players who leave school early.  

You can do this and still guarantee player movement to the professional ranks in years 3-5 without violating existing rules for NFL draft entry. The same criteria could be applied to all other sports based on existing limits for professional declaration. There are a range of methods to make the idea of a student athlete a viable one, short of denying students the chance to play their chosen sport their first year. They should all be investigated. 


October 6th, 2013 at 1:55 PM ^

Why waste our time with fantastical ideas that will never be implemented? Its mental masturbation, and Bacon is attempting to show off his, well, sausage. It's just grandstanding.