For the past 13 years, high school students had to meet straightforward academic criteria to get an athletic scholarship and participate in intercollegiate athletics as freshmen. The most stringent current requirement, that they achieve a minimum score of 820 out of 1600 on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, was recently voided by a federal district court. While the decision is currently on appeal, higher education officials are searching for a new way to ensure that students who want to play intercollegiate athletics as freshmen can do college level academic work before they take the field.
The most far-reaching proposal under consideration would make first-year students ineligible to play intercollegiate basketball. It's a good idea -- but it doesn't go far enough.
Based on my experience as president at two large public universities that offered athletic scholarships(Connecticut and Michigan State) and now as a president of a private university that does not, I believe that no first-year student, male or female, in any major sport, should be eligible for intercollegiate athletics.
This is not because first-year students cannot compete athletically. Many can. But the most important thing is to help all first-year students adapt to the academic and social demands of college life and let them experience the full range of opportunities that higher education offers.
There can be no dispute that exposing 17- or 18-year-old freshmen to the pressure and time demands of major college athletics limits their chances of having a well-balanced academic, social and athletic experience. And, in the final analysis, athletic policy decisions should be made with the total well-being of the student-athletes in mind. Too often, such decisions are based on what is best for the sport, and academic and social considerations are pushed aside. That's wrong.
Freshmen ineligibility used to be the norm. It was only in 1972 that NCAA rules were changed to permit freshmen to play at the varsity level. College athletics have changed a lot since then. The time demands on student-athletes have increased dramatically. The number of contests is far higher: Some schools now play almost 40 basketball games a year -- roughly half what the pros play. Travel distances have grown, and starting times have been pushed back to meet the scheduling demands of television. Media attention has become more intense. In short, the distance between high school athletics and major college athletics is a lot greater than it used to be.
Some believe that making freshmen ineligible would deny students the opportunity to participate in an extracurricular activity. But major college athletics is anything but an extracurricular activity. Too often, it is a totally consuming undertaking that pushes everything else aside.
It's true that some student-athletes can carry the academic and athletic load as freshmen. These students are especially likely to benefit from a broader sampling of college life. And banning freshman eligibility might well encourage a small number of young people to skip college and head straight for the pros. Fine.
The concept of the true student-athlete is not a pipe dream. At many schools it is a reality. At Tufts University -- a Division III school in the New England Small College Athletics Conference -- students pursue athletic excellence without sacrificing the academic and social experience. Doing so within the world of major college athletics is harder, but freshman ineligibility would be a big step in the right direction.
Here's the bottom line: Freshman ineligibility is the strongest, most compelling statement higher education can make regarding the overemphasis on athletics at the expense of academic achievement. It will send the message that there is more to life than athletics, a message that far too many of our student-athletes learn too late in life. Such a step is in the best interest of both student-athletes and higher education and is long overdue.
The writer is president of Tufts University.