Save for the occasional pointed barb or rare sojourn into the unfamiliar arena of transparency, it’s not an overly controversial opinion to state that the weeks surrounding the various conference “Media Day” events produce little in the way of hard-hitting, illuminating content. And that’s perfectly fine, as I suspect the overwhelming majority of college football fans view these events more as the official harbinger of the college football season’s imminent onset than as some kind of opportunity to catch wind of some previously confidential information. For most, the chance to hear one’s favorite coach talk specifics with respect to the upcoming season is reason enough to pay attention (unless that coach is Steve Spurrier, who demands attention instead for annually recalibrating the bar of “interesting press conference” by consistently proving himself the Cicero of oblique, hilarious potshots aimed at rivals). For these reasons, I found the comments that Mississippi State Head Coach Dan Mullen made on Tuesday of this week – in which he suggested a revolutionary approach to extending student-athlete eligibility – refreshingly out of place.
In a conversation with AL.com, Mullen addressed the new NCAA requirements concerning student-athlete core grade point average. Beginning in August of 2016, the NCAA will require that prospective student-athletes have a minimum GPA of 2.3. Should an incoming student-athlete fail to achieve this 2.3 GPA figure, but fall above the old 2.0 mark, that student-athlete will be forced to take an academic redshirt year. Further, the NCAA has also raised its sliding scale based on core GPA and SAT/ACT scores, requiring incoming recruits to have completed 10 of their 16 core classes before their senior year. In summary, starting next football season, we should expect to see certain incoming student-athletes have a one-year competitive sabbatical forced upon them.
As Mullen sees it, the unintended consequences of this new policy could be pronounced. Specifically, Mullen envisions a possible (likely?) scenario in which multiple incoming student-athletes have to take an academic redshirt year after they fall short of the new GPA guidelines, and how that would then force other freshmen into game action before they might be ready. Mullen also sees consequences of this new policy affecting those that fall short and have a redshirt year forced upon them, regardless of skill level or athletic readiness. According to Mullen, he “think[s] it’s a tough approach because you come in, and you know already you can’t play. It messes with academics and other things. It messes with your mindset a little bit.”
Mullen’s proposed solution to this quandary? Quite simply, that any player above the NCAA’s new core GPA requirement should get five years of eligibility, as opposed to the standard four years. As Mullen sees it, “if you are above that new standard you should get five years of eligibility. Why punish someone who might be forced to have to play?” Further, Mullen drives home the underlying rationale of his revolutionary new idea by stating, “Instead of punishing guys for doing bad, why not reward guys for doing good?” Why not indeed, Coach Mullen?
And this is the crux of the issue, after all: making sure that the NCAA promulgates policy that is in the best interests of the student-athlete. Attempting to ensure that incoming student-athletes are better prepared to succeed in a college environment is a laudable goal, but if the result is that physically unprepared players are put in harm’s way due to depth issues that would not have existed prior to these new rules, do the ends justify the means? Further, I think there is a colorable argument that rewarding a student-athlete with an additional year of eligibility due to their above-the-waterline academic work in high school could actually improve graduation rates on the whole. Consider a situation in which an incoming student-athlete with immediate impact athletic potential teeters just above the new 2.3 GPA cut-off, for example. Would rewarding this student-athlete with an additional year of eligibility right off the bat allow for that student to take a more relaxed course load, initially, in order to acclimate to college academic life perhaps not be more beneficial than immediately starting the “four year clock” from running the moment that student-athlete set foot on campus? I’m on record as supporting the immediate eligibility of student-athletes that graduate with a year of athletic eligibility left and transfer to pursue graduate programs elsewhere, given that I think it represents an unequivocal success on the part of all involved parties (the university, the football program, and the student-athlete). Couldn’t Mullen’s idea be viewed as the next logical extension of that policy, in that this approach would provide potentially “at risk to not graduate before their eligibility is exhausted” athletes with an initially less rigorous, less stressful academic load In their first year? This approach would, the argument goes, foment academic momentum and confidence and lead to increased graduation rates.
Not that there aren’t serious issues and concerns attendant to Mullen’s idea. The recruiting impact on the college football coaches themselves is immediately apparent; has an already complicated process been made untenable by the fact that coaches must now project who in a 25-man recruiting class will or will not ultimately count against their 85-man roster limit for four years versus five? And given the relatively small GPA delta at play here (.3 of a point, as affected student-athletes would fall between the 2.3 and 2.0 high school GPA lines) balanced against the huge potential benefit at stake (an extra year of eligibility!), is there now even more of a perverse incentive for both high school and college coaches to aggressively make certain that their future FBS players are above that 2.3 threshold?
To be sure, any treatment of the numerous logistical issues that the adoption of this policy would entail were noticeably absent from Mullen’s words. But he’s to be commended for both thinking outside the proverbial box with respect to an important, topical issue and for making sure that the stated rationale for this policy is tied back to the area that’s critically important: rewarding the student athlete for positive behavior and putting them in the most optimal position to succeed. And while there’s little chance there will be any immediate proactive steps taken with respect to Mullen’s idea — as he himself said that his approach has never got “any traction” among SEC coaches or administrators – it was nevertheless an island of original, compelling thought in the otherwise customary ocean of coachspeak-filled Media Days ennui.