A 'Year of Readiness' at Duke?

Freshmen Tyus Jones, Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow have been a big reason for Duke's success this season.
Freshmen Tyus Jones, Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow have been a big reason for Duke's success this season.

The Big Ten is considering a proposal that would prevent athletes from participating in men’s basketball and football in their first year at college.

Although Duke is a member of the ACC, Big Ten officials have been gauging interest in such a proposal from other athletic conferences around the country. If accepted by the ACC or NCAA, the proposal would present new challenges for the Duke athletic department.

“[The proposal] may not be appropriate or necessary for every student athlete in the sports of basketball and football,” said Brad Berndt, Duke senior associate director of athletics and student services. “In general there may be more under-prepared students from those two sports around the country, but overall there are many good students—well-prepared, well-adjusted students that participate in football and basketball.”

The Diamondback—the student paper at the University of Maryland—originally broke the story that Big Ten officials were circulating the report, entitled “A Year of Readiness.” Although the document is not yet public, The Diamondback obtained some of the report’s findings and recommendations.

Football and men’s basketball are the only two collegiate sports with nationwide graduation rates lower than 75 percent, according to the report. Between 2009 and 2013, football and men’s basketball ranked last among the 38 sports listed in the Academic Progress Rate, a team-based metric used by the NCAA that accounts for the eligibility and retention of each student-athlete every term.

Athletes in these programs make up less than 19 percent of all Division I collegiate athletes but account for more than 80 percent of academic infractions, according to the report obtained by The Diamondback.

The NCAA prohibited first-year athletes from competing in any collegiate sport until 1972. College coaches, administrators and athletic officials around the country are now rethinking this rule change and questioning the balance between athletics and academics at major universities. ACC Commissioner John Swofford said recently that now is the time to vet the issue of first-year eligibility for college athletes.

The Duke athletic department has yet to produce an official statement concerning the Big Ten’s proposal.

The proposal’s potential financial impact is still uncertain, Chief Financial Officer of Athletics Mitch Moser said.

In 2014, Duke’s football and men’s basketball programs generated almost $17.5 million in profit, according to a Durham Herald Sun report. Many athletic teams at Duke lose money every year and are subsidized by the “revenue sports” to continue competing. The entire Duke athletic department recorded a profit of $146,196 in 2014, according to data filed with the Department of Education.

The proposal for an enforced year of ineligibility would provide more athletic scholarships to men’s basketball and football programs. But universities would likely have to pay for the additional scholarships—around $66,000 per year for each additional scholarship at Duke—without any help from the NCAA, Moser said.

Duke’s football program voluntarily redshirts many of its freshmen, declaring them ineligible for a year of competition. Most recruits are not physically ready to compete at the Division I level, so they sit out from competition their first year. Of the 18 Blue Devil freshmen that received scholarships for the 2014-15 season, 13 redshirted. Fifteen of the 20 scholarship recipients in the 2013-14 recruiting class redshirted their first year.

Linebacker Zavier Carmichael was one of the five freshman football players who did not redshirt for the 2014-15 season. Carmichael played in all 13 games, recording 20 tackles and two interceptions while also earning a 3.8 GPA in his first semester, taking classes in philosophy, writing, chemistry and public policy.

“I wanted to be redshirted because I didn’t see myself as prepared to take the next step into college, but the coaches thought otherwise,” Carmichael said. “Most [first-years] want to play, but I wanted to gain some more weight because I am undersized at my position. But I’m happy that I played this year because I made contributions to the team.”

Division I men’s basketball is a much different landscape. One-and-dones—players who leave for the NBA after their first year on campus—have become a staple of the college game.

This season, Duke starts three freshmen—Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow. Okafor is a player-of-the-year candidate, and Jones and Winslow are candidates for the all-conference team. Jabari Parker led the ACC in rebounding and finished second in the conference in scoring as a freshman last season and was selected as the second overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft.

Austin Rivers won all-ACC honors and knocked down a game-winning 3-pointer against North Carolina in 2012 in his only season in Durham. Like Parker, Rivers also left Duke after one year and was selected in the first round of the NBA draft.

The “Year of Readiness” proposal would not only change the makeup of Duke’s basketball program, but also provide some implementation challenges.

Duke limits its undergraduates to nine full semesters of enrollment. That means if an athlete takes a redshirt year, he or she must either take a semester off or enroll in a one-year graduate degree program to remain eligible for a fourth and final year of competition. Duke would have to reconcile its nine-semester academic model with a new 10-semester athletic model for men’s basketball and football in order for the proposal to be successful, Todd Mesibov, associate director of athletics and compliance, said.

The year of ineligibility might not even solve the nationwide problem of poor academic standards for football and men’s basketball players, Berndt said.

Berndt, who has been with Duke Athletics for 18 years, said that actual competition accounts for a small portion of the time devoted by athletes to their sport. Football, for instance, only plays between 12 and 14 games per season, mostly on Saturdays. Basketball games often occur during the academic week and are a more significant time commitment—between 30 and 40 games per season.

“Simply taking the eligibility away and making them ineligible for games as freshmen doesn’t at all address the time they devote to practice, weightlifting, meetings, treatment and all those other team-related activities,” Berndt said. “I’m not sure how much benefit is gained by telling a kid that he can’t play in games but he still has to go to practice for 15 to 20 hours a week.”

The Big Ten’s proposal is far from becoming a legitimate piece of legislation, Mesibov said.

The NCAA does not have an official statement on the Big Ten proposal.

“It would be very difficult to pass something like this, in this day and age, and get complete buy-in from college administrators, coaches, student-athletes and the NBA and NFL,” Berndt said. “But that’s strictly my opinion.”


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