Let my people go.

I’m pissed. Somebody decided it’s “Crap on the NCAA” Week, and I didn’t get the memo.

First, there’s mgoblog‘s missive that I posted on previously.

There’s also this post from SMQ that in turn references this post at EDSBS. Both are must reads.

In essence these involve an exploration of the current system of college athletics and how it regulates the relationship between institutions and student athletes through the mechanism we’ve all grown to know and love as the NCAA. Given that the title to one post contains the words “ugly” and “terrible” and the other “necessary evil”, it stands to reason that neither is terribly complimentary about the current setup.

Both posts delve into the question of whether the current system is exploitative of college athletes. The post at EDSBS makes it pretty clear that the author believes it is, except perhaps at institutions with lowered athletic expectations:

… So football players are denied the courtesies extended to interns while simultaneously denied the opportunity to network effectively with wealthy alums by the NCAA.That’s a perfectly engineered power differential there: the labor gets a pittance in return for the eventual payoff. This power differential is not as drastic at universities with low athletic profiles; in fact, at a place like Vanderbilt, the athletes can claim a pretty legitimate exchange of goods. At places like our beloved University of Florida, however, the divergence between effort and eventual payoff swells to the wildly disproportionate.

Its shadow becomes all too evident during recruiting, when agents of the corporation called college football go out to pitch the logically impossible: an exclusive contract of a good (a university education) unwanted by many of the purchasers in exchange for a fleeting shot at an NFL career attained by a slim percentage of the applicants. In repayment, their truly unique talents get short shrift in the form of denied benefits proportional to their input. In plain terms: athletes on the whole don’t get back what they put into their time at a university. Not even close.

I buy some of that, but not all. It seems to me that last point is easier to make with regard to a Reggie Bush… er, maybe I should use a better example… to a Calvin Johnson than for, say, a Tra Battle.

SMQ asks the trickier question: assume for the sake of argument that the kids are being exploited. Given what we fans want from college football, is that necessarily a bad thing?

That in SMQ’s mind is the overarching point of view from the capitalist perspective, i.e., the NCAA’s. If in your view that is an attempt to justify an unjust exploitation of the “labor,” the athlete, ask what role the consumer plays and has played in perpetuating that exploitation – does our interest in college football, as consumers, viewers of advertising, buyers of tickets, boosters of funds, depend on it? Is the product’s viability as such dependent on the subjugation of its labor to the outdated system that continues to make it a marketable commodity? Given the popularity – hence, money – at stake if the NCAA were to fundamentally change that system, is it fair to say college football could not exist as a competitive commodity as we know it without that exploitation? SMQ isn’t going answer resoundingly “yes,” but there is a substantial argument in that line of thought.

One problem I have with this concession is that I think it leaves out an important actor in this – the National Football League. The primary reason that the colleges have so much leverage over high school kids who don’t have another option in many cases is that the NFL won’t sign anyone who hasn’t used up three years of college eligibility.

The NFL, as SMQ notes admiringly, has one helluva setup. One part of that is not having to bear any significant cost for the development of its incoming talent. That’s a sweet deal, both for management and also for the players in the league, who face less competition for contracts and jobs.

My question is why should that be? The NFL will give you some high minded BS that an eighteen year old isn’t physically or mentally ready for the rigors of pro football, but why is that my problem (asked from the perspective of a college football fan)?

The reality is that this lets the NFL escape what the NBA has struggled with for the past few years, namely, signing kids out of high school to big contracts and then watching them get paid as they develop skills so that they can contribute as professional players. Sure, that sucks from the league’s standpoint, but, again, as a fan of college sports that’s not my problem.

It seems to me that if you want to let the air out of the exploitation balloon you have two choices. One, you pay the players. That’s a bad idea and, given the realities of Title IX, an unworkable one. Two, you end the restriction on high schoolers  turning professional. That’s already the way things work for baseball and I think it’s eminently fair. If an eighteen year old wants to play pro ball and a team wants to hire him to do so, well, that’s the American way.

In some form or fashion, the NFL would adapt. It’s not as if it doesn’t have the money to support a system that would let kids who don’t want to go to college (or, perhaps more accurately, have no business going to college) play football; it just hasn’t had to devote any significant resources to them.

Will the quality of play in college decline as a result? Probably some, but in return for the chance to eliminate farces like the saga of Demetrice Morley, that’s a decent tradeoff to my way of thinking.

Giving high school kids another option wouldn’t make college football as pure as the driven snow, but it would make it easier to be sincere about defending the amateurism of college football. And it’s that amateurism, diluted though it may be, that helps give college football its special charm.

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