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B1G's 'Year of Readiness' a starting point with unclear ending

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ROSEMONT, Ill. -- The agenda has been light so far, as Big Ten athletic directors and other conference leaders gather here at league headquarters for their annual spring meetings. But the desire to design major changes to the way college sports are run remains strong.

As expected, officials have spent considerable time discussing the proposed "Year of Readiness" -- or freshman ineligibility -- and how to decrease the demands on college athletes. Nearly all in attendance agree reform is badly needed.

"It's time for a reset button in the collegiate model," Minnesota athletic director Norwood Teague said.

Just how to do that, however, remains murky. The league, of course, can and will continue to push its year of readiness idea and, like Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke did on Tuesday, urge people to thoroughly review commissioner Jim Delany's 12-page white paper on the issue that was released last month. Delany, when he meets with reporters on Wednesday, will likely reassert his rationale for the proposal.

The truth is the idea has gained very little support outside of Big Ten offices and is unlikely ever to see the light of day. Even Teague admitted that making freshmen ineligible as they were in the 1960s is "probably an iffy proposition."

So why is the league spending so much time talking about a plan that has little chance of coming to fruition? Mostly, it's just a launching point for a broader reform debate.

"I think the greatest thing is, we're talking about academic issues," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said. "I'm not a proponent of the year of readiness. But I love the fact that our commissioner and our league put it out there, because it's become a lightning rod to discuss academic issues."

The key question here is what exactly the league hopes to accomplish from striking that conversation. Specifics have been as sparse, while complications abound.

Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips, who was recently appointed as the new chairman of the NCAA Division I council, said he is hoping to see legislative changes at next year's NCAA convention. Phillips said schools should push back against the one-and-done culture in men's basketball, though they would need the NBA to first change its rules.

So where can meaningful change actually occur? Several Big Ten leaders want to reduce the hourly load placed on their student-athletes.

"If I was setting the agenda, the thing that would be No. 1 to me would be the demands on the students' time," Rutgers athletic director Julie Hermann said. "We've got to figure out what's a true balance."

Yet even that basic idea raises myriad questions. As Burke noted, the necessary time demands for a sprinter may well be different than that of a swimmer. And many athletes want to spend extra hours improving their performance.

"We have four quarterbacks at Purdue who are all dean's list students right now," Burke said. "If they want to come in at 10 o'clock to watch film, are you going to tell them no? The whole question about, are you pressuring the kids to go watch film and video, that seems to be the biggest culprit. That's a hard one to solve, because you don't tell the chemistry major they can't go in the lab."

Hermann said everything needed to be examined, including the reduction of games on the schedule. But when pressed, she didn't name any sports where she thought games could or should be eliminated.

The cynical look at this situation is that the Big Ten is merely posturing in public, putting on a brave face about saving the educational mission in order to help its arguments in lawsuits and labor disputes. After all, a lightning rod -- as Smith described it -- is designed to deflect danger from the existing structure.

To be fair, though, the league has been talking about many of these issues for a long time, in many cases louder and more credibly than other conferences. Now it is leading the way on freshman ineligibility, even as it knows that few will follow.

"The year of readiness is just an idea," Iowa athletic director Gary Barta said. "There doesn't seem to be a national momentum toward doing it. But there is a lot of national momentum about the discussion about student-athletes and their academic experience, the discussion about time demands, and that's good. If that's where it leads us, then we've accomplished one of our goals."

Getting the discussion started is a minor victory. Specific action, obviously, will always trump simply talking. Just how the Big Ten gets from the latter to the former is a lingering mystery.