A special NCAA committee will not recommend making men's college basketball players ineligible for competition during all or part of their freshman season because of potential legal problems and a lack of membership support for the proposal, several sources familiar with the group's deliberations said this week.
Instead, the 27-member committee, known as the NCAA Division I Working Group to Study Basketball Issues, is focusing its attention on strengthening existing eligibility rules. The group, chaired by Syracuse University Chancellor Kenneth A. Shaw, will meet July 19-20 in Chicago and plans to announce a broad-based package of recommendations thereafter.
Shaw had been the major proponent of the proposal to declare all freshmen ineligible. But legal observers who followed two major recent courtroom setbacks for the NCAA in the areas of antitrust and race discrimination say a rule aimed at one segment of athletes, especially one that is 80 percent black, is inviting another costly litigation.
"We're not going to do anything stupid legally," said one committee member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The proposal to make freshmen ineligible -- the stated goal had been to give them a chance to get a foothold on campus both academically and socially -- had little grass-roots support. An NCAA survey showed three of every four respondents among coaches, athletic directors, faculty representatives and university presidents were against the idea. At a recent meeting of the nation's Division I conference commissioners, only the Big Ten's Jim Delany raised his hand in favor of such a move, according to several commissioners at the meeting.
Making freshmen ineligible likely would mean an increase in the men's basketball scholarship limit of 13 per year, which would add additional costs, as would the likelihood of playing some games against other freshman or junior varsity teams. It also could have an impact under federal Title IX law that bars sex discrimination at schools that receive federal funds.
"The litmus tests are the financial considerations," said Sheldon Steinbach, vice president and general counsel of the Washington-based American Council on Education, a leader in the reform movement in college athletics. "You stick the piece of litmus paper in there and if it doesn't turn green, generally the proposal is not going to survive."
Delany, whose outspokenness a year ago for such a study led to the naming of the current committee, said he knew there would not be grassroots support for making freshmen ineligible. He said he has not kept abreast of committee discussions but thinks it is giving up too easily.
"You can rationally explain to a federal judge why you're doing it for one sport and not another," he said. "I don't discount the cost, but this is the sport that supports the organization [financially, with its seven-year, $1.6 billion television rights fee for the NCAA tournament]. But at some point we're going to have to pay a price, a financial price, to improve [the environment for the athletes] to some extent."
Instead of making freshmen ineligible, the committee now is focusing on toughening eligibility standards. Under NCAA rules, eligibility is determined on an annual basis, unless a conference or institution has higher standards. Among the proposals under consideration is requiring incoming freshmen to pass summer-school courses in order to be eligible in the fall semester and to make eligibility decisions based on a semester-by-semester or quarter-by-quarter basis. Both ideas have failed previous efforts to make them into NCAA rules.
The committee also is closely following recent suggestions by NBA Commissioner David Stern to negotiate with the league's players union an age limit for players entering the NBA.
Any recommendations sent forward by the committee would have to be approved by the 34-member Management Council, composed of athletic administrators and faculty representatives and the Division I Board of Presidents, the Division's policy-makers.
Shaw, who is vacationing this week, and NCAA President Cedric Dempsey were not available to comment yesterday.