Jonathan Chait linked to an article that I somehow missed when it first appeared. It starts with a conclusion that I share.
Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany — who might be the smartest man in college sports — stood outside the Big Ten’s brand new offices recently, telling a group of reporters, “Maybe in football and basketball, it would work better if more kids had a chance to go directly into the professional ranks. If they’re not comfortable and want to monetize, let the minor leagues flourish.”
(Before you chuckle over the concept that Delany might be the smartest man in college sports, consider the possibility that he might actually be the smartest man in college sports. Not so funny, hunh… but I digress.)
The problem with this, of course, isn’t identifying a solution. It’s how you get the pro leagues to drink the water you want to lead them to.
By challenging the NFL and NBA to start their own minor leagues, Delany doesn’t have much to lose. He knows they won’t, because they have every reason not to. They’ve used the college leagues to develop their players from the day the pro leagues started. Why would they derail the gravy train now?
Yes, why would they? More to the point, how could the colleges force their hands? The author thinks he has a solution to that question.
OK, but why would the NFL and NBA ever go for this, and voluntarily invest millions of their own money to create something they’ve been getting for free since they started? They wouldn’t, of course, so you’d have to force them.
But forcing them can be accomplished in one step: bring back freshmen ineligibility. If you want to make it honest, that’s how you do it.
In fact, freshmen ineligibility was the rule from 1905, the year the NCAA was founded, until 1972, and for a simple reason: colleges actually believed their athletes should be students first, and this is how they proved it. It gave all athletes a year to get their feet on the ground, and catch up where needed. Dean Smith and Terry Holland argued before the Knight Commission about the merits of freshmen ineligibility — but that was nine years ago, and nothing has changed. Until the NCAA, the leagues, the presidents and the athletic directors bring back freshmen ineligibility, you should not take them seriously when they speak of “student-athletes.” They do not mean it.
By requiring all student-athletes to be actual student-athletes, many elite athletes will opt out — but there’s no way the NFL or the NBA will let talented 18-year olds wander off if they might be able to help their teams win games. So, the NFL and NBA would almost certainly do what they should have done decades ago: Prepare players for their leagues, with their own money, by starting their own minor league teams.
I’m ready to grasp at any straw here, but I don’t find myself convinced. For one thing, there’s a kind of chicken-and-egg thing going on with his basic assumption that elite athletes will opt out, at least for football. As long as college ball remains the only option for making it to the NFL, exactly where else are those talented 18-year olds going to wander off? For another, as he notes, freshmen ineligibility was the rule until 1972. Maybe I missed it, but I don’t remember the NFL developing a minor league for itself in response back then.
Read the whole thing. He makes a lot of good points about how college football would survive the pros giving elite players a paying option. I also agree with his argument about how it would make college sports less hypocritical. So maybe I’m missing something with his proposed solution. Let me know what you think.