The Big Ten Knows What's Best for Your Tall, Talented Child

The sudden move towards freshman ineligibility in college football and men's basketball seems odd, but a close reading suggests it's just market-fixing.

by Andy Schwarz
Mar 6 2015, 3:55pm

It's for the kids! Last week, the Big Ten ("B1G") proposed a new "Year of Readiness" rule that would prevent freshman football and basketball players from playing in games. The Pac-12, ACC, and the Big 12 have also made noise about a similar plan, and Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott has even admitted to discussing it with his rival power conference peers. The ostensible goal is helping athletes adjust to campus sports, academics, and life, all without the pressure of potentially appearing on the court or the field. If first-year ineligibility ultimately makes for better students and a better college experience, well, who can argue against it?

On face value, no one. Only something's fishy.

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For one, athletes in the elite revenue sports—and that's who we're really talking about here, as the proposal explicitly exempts all sports other than football and men's basketball—already devote 40-plus hours a week to their craft. So is game time alone really the problem? Will freshman athletes be barred from sitting on their squads' benches in street clothes? Will they be banned from traveling to away games with their teammates? Do B1G schools also plan to stop selling football and basketball tickets to freshman non-athletes, so that they too can be more ready as sophomores?

Isn't it the non-game time—the practicing and weightlifting and film study—that eats into athletes' days, and presumably makes their arrival on campus such a difficult adjustment?

It worked out OK for Jabari Parker. Image via Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps the B1G believes freshman ineligibility is something fans want. If so, they're mistaken—and the reluctance of any one school to do this on its own is the giveaway that they know it, too. When a business hits upon a great idea that pleases its customers, it typically moves heaven and Earth to be first to the market with said idea, rather than begging its competitors to all jump in at once. So why are schools in the B1G shopping freshman ineligibility around among other schools and conferences? Why is the Pac-12's Larry Scott "pushing" others to join his conference? More importantly, why would such a system ever need to be agreed upon by every school in Division I? Why wouldn't schools just unilaterally do it?

Right now, freshmen play. In many cases, they're the stars of their teams. And college football has never been stronger as a commercial product—despite the fact that the current single-game rushing record is held by University of Oklahoma freshman Samaje Perine, who managed to rush for 427 yards against Kansas.

As for basketball, the TV money is bigger than it ever has been. However, there's a broad consensus that the collegiate game has become less aesthetically pleasing, with lower scores and fewer dominant players. Somehow, some people have decided that the underlying problem is "one-and-dones"—a small number of top-tier players who prior to 2005 were able to move directly from high school to the National Basketball Association, and now because of a change in union/league rules have to wait a year (usually on a college roster) before doing so.

I'll admit: I don't get this line of thinking. Better basketball talent is hurting the quality of play in college hoops because ... Jabari Parker wasn't fun to watch at Duke University? Because the University of Kentucky's current frosh-laden squad is having a historic season and that's somehow bad for the game? Coaches aren't stupid. If one-and-dones were really hurting teams, here's what they would do: not give them scholarships, not give them playing time, and thus not intentionally lower the quality of their team. Only that doesn't happen. Players like Parker are heavily recruited by the top programs, even though those programs are under no illusion that superstar talents will stay beyond one season.

Oh, and don't forget: freshman ineligibility within any given football or basketball program already is pretty common. It's called redshirting. If a particular school thinks game quality, fan interest, or academic performance will benefit from a particular athlete sitting out for a season, there's nothing stopping that school and/or athlete from taking a Year of Readiness right now. Nor is there anything stopping a University President from insisting his coach do the same for every single freshman on the team.

So back to our earlier question: why is the B1G talking about making frosh redshirts mandatory across schools, and why are multiple conferences attempting to sell the same idea as a national requirement?

Ezekiel Elliott did OK as a freshman. Image via Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

I have an idea. A suspicion, really. But first, let's hear from Iowa State (Big 12) athletic director Jamie Pollard:

Q: What are your thoughts about freshman ineligibility?

A: I'm a proponent of it, but for a different reason that's been articulated so far. I just believe that if we want to send a message as an industry that we're about higher education and the collegiate model then I think that's one of many ideas that need to be seriously considered. Because the situation we've found ourselves in as an industry is not because of swimmers and tennis players and runners, it's because of basketball and football. That is one of a multitude of possible changes that could take back the collegiate model. I don't think that message has been articulated well. It was thrown out as an idea without a real, why would you do this? It's about the collegiate experience. That means you've got to go to school.

Q: Would it drive players to away from the NCAA?

A: If it does then I'm perfectly fine with that because those that want to make money off of themselves, I'm all for that. But go do it. That's what we have arena football for, that's what the D-League is. Go do it. See how much money you can make. But don't come to our world and then complain about our set of parameters. Our parameters are you're going to be a student.

Ah-ha. There it is. Freshman ineligibility isn't about "readiness;" it's about what monopsonies (that's just a fancy term for a cartel of buyers, like the NCAA and its member schools) do best—namely, drive suppliers (athletes) out of the market, in what seems to be a truly misguided attempt to defend the increasingly-besieged amateur economy of big-time college sports by flexing the monopsony muscles that are getting college sports into legal hot water in the first place.

Before I go too far down Economist Jargon Street, let me slow down and explain. The basic premise of American law with respect to economic competition since the Sherman Act was passed in 1890 has been "thou shalt not collude." As the courts have interpreted that law, it comes with a corollary for special situations, including team sports: "unless by colluding you create additional choice in the marketplace that could not exist without that collusion." NCAA collusion to fix prices—by limiting athlete compensation to scholarships via amateurism—would only qualify as legal if it fit the corollary (but it doesn't). In the language of law and economics, that kind of agreement is called "pro-competitive" because despite the cooperation between rivals, the end result is more competition among more options.

The existing rules on redshirting do just that—they widen choice by creating different options. You can redshirt or not, and you can pick which school to go to based on whether you want to redshirt or not. When the coach goes into the athlete's home and tries to sell his parents on why school X is best for their son, they have a choice: young Jabari plays right away as a freshman, or Jabari gets a "Year of Readiness" first.

But when you listen to Pollard, it becomes clear the goal of adopting a nationwide rule on the "Year of Readiness" is to eliminate that choice and to force anyone out of the market entirely if they don't like it.

Where I come from, that's not pro-competitive. That's abuse of monopoly power. And thus quite possibly illegal. In fact, here's how Pollard's statement sounds to an antitrust expert:

... send a message as an industry ...

"I want to collude with all my competitors to do something none of us wants to do on his/her own because it's bad for business."

... take back the collegiate model ...

"Let's prevent athletes from using a single year in college to prepare themselves for their first job post-college, especially the ones who are worth far more than just a scholarship."

... if it does [drive players away from the NCAA ] then I'm perfectly fine with that because those that want to make money off of themselves, I'm all for that. But go do it ...

"Yes, we are colluding to offer a less attractive product with the goal of force driving to go to Europe to further their careers."

... don't come to our world ...

"We have monopoly power, and if you don't like it, go somewhere like China, where our market power can't hurt you."

... our parameters are you're going to be a student ...

"Don't ask us to pay you or we will collectively revoke your ability to showcase yourself for a year."

The "if you don't like it, go play in China" argument offers some (albeit false) intuitive appeal. After all, Home Depot picks a price and if you don't like it, you can't sue them, so why should college basketball be different? Well, mostly because Home Depot doesn't coordinate with Lowes over the prices each pays to suppliers. By contrast, the 351 schools in Division I basketball do coordinate those prices, and by doing so, their collective cartel gets control over something like 99.9 percent of the market for fresh-from-high-school, television-worthy athletes, because so few of them have other options. But within Division I, without an agreement, there would be lots of competition. And that competition would provide parents with that choice of redshirt or not when helping their 17-year old son make that choice.

A B1G school might make an offer that includes a mandatory redshirt year. And then, without a national agreement, an SEC school might say, "That's great, but we think you'd prefer playing some in your freshman year." (A B1G athletic director, Wisconsin's Barry Alvarez, basically has said that this is already happening.) This is the same kind of choice you have to walk out of Home Depot and go to Lowes, rather than having to go to China to get your power tools. Competition across schools and conferences always brings choice; nationwide agreements stifle it.

On Monday, in a move that surprised basically zero people, SEC commissioner Mike Slive came out in opposition to the Big Ten proposal. I am sure it is entirely a coincidence that Kentucky, the epicenter of freshman basketball superstardom, happens to be in the SEC. Instead of focusing there, Slive made extremely reasonable arguments about some athletes being ready for school and sports at the same time, and existing rules being in place to address athletes who need more time. Cynically, what he may have been saying is "Go right ahead, B1G, Pac-12, Big 12, ACC, insist on that year of pine-riding, but we plan to offer athletes and their parents a choice, and let's see which they think is better."

The ball is now back in the other major conferences' court. The B1G could still try out mandatory freshman ineligibility for its schools, and find out if it's actually more appealing to parents and athletes. If so, the conference's talent base will improve, it will pull ahead of the SEC, and pretty soon Slive and his conference will flip-flop into mandatory first-year redshirting.

More likely, the B1G would quickly realize that if they can't enforce ineligibility across the NCAA, it won't be anyone's first choice—instead, the Parkers and Perinesof the world will play elsewhere, and the "Year of Readiness" will end up producing years of on-court and on-field mediocrity. So don't expect it to happen. Still, the fact that it's even being discussed within and across conferences smacks of the arrogant, "we know better" paternalism that animates so much of college sports amateurism, a paternalism that tells athletes and their families alike that they neither understand value nor how to capitalize it, all while ensuring that football and basketball coaches are almost invariably the highest-paid public employees in their states.

In every industry, the modus operandi of monopolies is to make their products worse and more expensive through a lack of marketplace competition—and then, if it suits them, to justify that lack with "it's better for you anyway" arguments that generally end in telling you to to take it or leave it. Does Pollard sound any different? Does a mandatory "Year of Readiness?" When conferences compete, everyone wins. Fans, parents and athletes alike should be thankful that the power conferences seems to be blowing smoke. Otherwise, freshmen such as Georgia's Nick Chubb or Oklahoma's Samaje Perrine would have been sidelined for their inaugural seasons, and our best and brightest young basketball players would have to go to socialist Europe or communist China to enjoy free market choice.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article referred to Ohio State University running back Ezekiel Elliot as a freshman this past season, he was a sophomore.