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Panel should let ineligibility rest in peace

The case for declaring freshmen ineligible to play men's basketball is a strong one, with an appalling graduation rate, rampant early defections to the NBA and a common perception that the acclimation to college life is exceedingly difficult.

The proposal also has a strong corps of supporters, including North Carolina head coach Bill Guthridge and Virginia Athletic Director Terry Holland. But make no mistake: freshman ineligibility--and the logic behind the proposal--is an outdated, detrimental solution to a problem created by the megabucks of modern college and professional basketball.

The main problem is that the big-time college basketball world increasingly outgrows the term "student-athlete", with the latter getting far more attention than the former. By denying that college is for most a stepping-stone to the pros, the pro-ineligibility group is deluding itself into reviving a rule that has rested in peace since 1972.

The main target of the resolution is increasing the horrid 41 percent graduation rate among men's basketball players that began school in 1991. An interesting auxiliary proposal ties the number of scholarships schools receive to their graduation rates.

Holland, whose Pete Gillen-run team often started two first years last year and expects to incorporate several more next season, told The Virginia-Pilot that the proposal will allow freshmen to "invest in all that college life has to offer before being required to begin the heavy investment of time required of scholarship student-athletes."

The "heavy investment of time" Holland mentions is interesting. The exact details of the proposal--whether the freshmen would participate in practice, on frosh teams, or completely sit out--still must be ironed out.

But it is nearly impossible to see why the prospects and coaches would settle for anything less than practice participation. There is no way a talented 18-year-old should idly wait in the prime of his young career and allow his skills to atrophy at what could be his most crucial development period.

Logically then, the "heavy investment of time" cannot conceivably include practice time. The players will still arrive at the gym around 2:30 and stay until the early evening five days a week. They will have away trips off, but it is also doubtful they will be absent from home games, at least as spectators. The proposal will most likely eliminate about 15 roadtrips a year. It is doubtful that this is time enough for the students to experience the riches of the college experience at the tremendous cost to their careers.

Once the players do get on the court and succeed, the same temptations and problems will be there come their sophomore and junior years. The same NBA money, illicit activities and ego development will occur. Transfers, suspensions and early departures are natural parts of the game at this stage in the sport's development. The proposal eliminates none of these.

NCAA President Cedric Dempsey admitted that the proposal could entice top players to jump directly to the pros in even greater numbers.

"But to me, that should not be a primary consideration," Dempsey told the Associated Press. "Those players are not going to be [in school] very long anyway. At the end of the day, that's not an NCAA problem. That's a problem for the NBA Players' Association."

Dempsey, who is in charge of the umbrella organization that governs college athletics, discourages 17- and 18-year olds from going to college because they might--might--leave before their four years are finished. Undoubtedly even one year spent at college is better than none.

Dempsey says he wants to reestablish an emphasis on academics and normal college life. Yet he makes no mention of lightening the schedule around exam time. Or banning tournaments during Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays and allowing the athletes (who often travel thousands of miles away from home) the chance to see their families before the school year ends. Or allowing scholarships to begin the summer leading into the students' freshman year, to let athletes get used to living on their own and get a head start on the credits needed to graduate.

The proposal also ignores coaches and schools' funding limits. The number of scholarships will have to increase to compensate, as Virginia would have had just four healthy scholarship players last season. Most of their walk-ons were first years, too. Smaller schools (whose Cinderella tournament runs the NCAA embraces each March) might not be able to finance the additional scholarships as well.

Inevitably, the proposal is universally damaging. It will decrease the level of play in college basketball, where freshmen are almost universally asked to contribute, if not star. The proposal certainly will not benefit the players, who will be forced into a hard decision that weighed their financial security against being locked into additional years in college.

Regardless, in terms coaches, A.D.s and players alike can understand, it's a lose-lose proposition.