There seems to be no feasible way for the nation's colleges and universities to shuck their unwanted role as farm teams for the National Basketball Association and the National Football League. We in the academic community ought, however, to do our screening on our own terms, and those terms are principally academic. We know better than the pros when, for how long and how much athletics should impinge on studies. We also know that it is a bad idea for freshmen to play on varsity teams, especially in basketball and football. The academic case for that statement can be summed up in one sentence: It's tough enough being a freshman.
Various challenges face any freshman when he lands on a college campus. He runs into newness everywhere: a new place, new people, new food, new rhythms. He finds sharp discontinuities between college and high school, a new intensity and volume of required work as well as much stiffer competition from classmates. Every freshman must face a bewildering variety of choices among courses and professors. College by its very nature makes a host of academic demands against as yet unknown standards.
A freshman faces new responsibilities for living as well as learning. He is no longer a junior member of a family and a part-time student, but a young adult fully involved in studies and with a new identity to make. The absence of the family takes away stable adult presences that were part of life itself, and is a first step toward an identity that will always acknowledge parents but no longer depend on them in the same way.
Freshmen are stripped of their accomplishments and of reassurance, such as high school honors and "establishment." The more a freshman was a major figure in his high school, the more difficult the transition will be to college, where freshmen are all regarded as equal.
Freshmen need time for talk. They need to gather, to bond and find friends, to measure each other and build confidence together. Varsity play pulls the freshman away from his own class during the one critical year he has to become a part of it.
There are two other givens of varsity competition—especially in football and basketball—that freshmen can do without. The first is the upset of frequent absence from the campus. The second is the distortion of life on campus that press and TV attention can mean for a talented freshman. Colleges are like society in general; you pay your dues before you can do much else. None of the other freshmen will feel that those dues have been paid if they see a classmate followed by cameras, quoted in the newspapers and subject to all the false adulation and unreal focus that athletic prominence brings. Most freshmen have enough problems coping, and it is very easy for them to write off the athletes, put them in their own little box and leave them there. The loss to both is great.
When the student is a nationally known high school player, as Patrick Ewing was, the adjustment to being "just a freshman" must be difficult. I know Ewing welcomed Georgetown University's refusal to allow photographers to follow him into classes and his dorm.
All these problems are made worse if a freshman athlete comes onto campus behind the rest of his classmates in academic skills and experience. The problem here is double. First, his work will not be up to the standard the faculty demands. Second, he himself will know the gap and possibly exaggerate it in his own mind. Freshman year can do that to the best of students, and for poorly prepared students the mounting sense of personal inadequacy can be hurtful or even destructive.
Twenty years ago universities routinely fielded freshman teams with freshman coaches, limited freshman travel, and were able to spare freshmen the hot focus that the merciless light of publicity sheds on them. In addition, identifying a team as "freshman" pulls it into the freshman class and thus integrates rather than separates its members and their classmates. Students who play freshman sports are freshman representatives. They can grow into spokesmen for their class and will remain identified with that class through the following years.
"It's tough enough being a freshman" is the basis of the change that many college presidents are currently urging on the NCAA. Our principal obligation to freshmen is to help them settle into a new world, get started on their studies, fit comfortably into their class, and, in short, join the college. Playing on a varsity squad is not likely to help that process. In sports such as basketball and football, which are distorted out of all proportion by publicity and hype, varsity play as a freshman is a thoroughly bad way to start college.