College sports’ silver bullet?

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.

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36 Comments

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36 responses to “College sports’ silver bullet?

  1. Mark

    That rule would have an interesting impact on BB for sure. It wouldn’t be “one and done” any more. (Though the player might only play one year.) It would be interesting to see how the players and the NBA reacted to such a rule.

    Hard to see how it would impact FB much though. Unless the NFL changed the rule, the good players would just do what Marino did. Play 2 years after the redshirt and move on.

    One point he made that is interesting though… if colleges did want to make a statement about the athletes being “student-athletes”, making all freshmen ineligible would send a big statement.

  2. Hogbody Spradlin

    I get this picture in my head of less than 92,000 people in Sanford Stadium watching 2 teams, comprised of small slow Division III quality players, duke it out for Ole U, with the ones on the sideline poring over their accounting books for an exam Monday. But in my mental picture there isn’t any g****m piped in music.

    • What, you think the entirety of D-1 is going to play minor league ball? Not gonna happen.

      • Hogbody Spradlin

        I wasn’t exactly thinking minor league ball, I was thinking about who’s left after the guys go to the pro farm teams. I might be taking it a little too far, but the college game would lose something substantial.

        • Macallanlover

          Just wouldn’t be that big a difference. The balance would be the limited number of teams in the developmental league that would work financially. CFB would be better than it was in the 80s-90s, imo. If teams are competitive, the product will still be exciting.

  3. heyberto

    The one thought that entered my head: if Delaney knows the NFL will continue to use the college ranks as a developmental league, and that’s the NFL’s best option… Is he bluffing about letting underclass man opt outdo he can squeeze the NFL for money while they develop players?

    • Doubt that would work. If you’re gonna spend the money anyway, you’re going to want complete control over development, which means you might as well start your own minor league.

  4. I agree that the ideal would be for the NBA and NFL to have minor leagues. But I don’t see how freshman ineligibility makes this happen AT ALL. Especially with football, you have to be in school and maintain eligibility for 3 years anyway (if you want to play, at least). So how does freshman ineligibility impact that in any way? We’d just see more Knowshon situations where guys redshirt, play 2 years, then leave. I mean, where are these guys going to “wander off” to? They’re not gonna go play with Jared Lorenzen for the Northern Kentucky River Monsters. As long as the 3 year rule stands, I just don’t see how freshman ineligibility changes anything with respect to forcing the hand of the NFL.

    I guess it could potentially make more of an impact on the basketball side, but I’m less than convinced on that too. Though it would be an easy step for the NBA to make since they already have the D-League, they’d just have to open that up to guys straight out of high school. This is far more likely to happen than the NFL starting their own minor league system.

    Again, I fully agree that the ideal situation would be for these guys to have the option to go into a legitimate developmental league if they aren’t at all interested in the academic side of things. I just don’t see it happening, especially from the NFL side.

  5. DawgPhan

    Creating a D-League for football is going to cost more than a few million dollars. Secondly where are they going to get all of this talent to coach up the guys? If you handed someone a $100million check they could create a d-league for college football that worked half as well as college football for getting guys ready.

    The presidents, coaches, and ADs need to stop hoping that someone bails them out of the mess they have created.

  6. Go Dawgs!

    Why would the NFL care if freshmen were ineligible? They certainly didn’t care that Knowshon Moreno only played two years at Georgia before turning pro. They are apparently willing to take Johnny Football after just two years as a college quarterback. If anything, all freshman ineligibility does is take a year of wear and tear off of a player’s body before giving it to the NFL. If a football player wants to opt out… where’s he going? Nowhere! Just like the kids who get redshirted.

    • I think the author of the article is very smart, I just don’t see anywhere that he actually supports his conclusion. He just says “By requiring all student-athletes to be actual student-athletes, many elite athletes will opt out”, but never explains his logic behind that statement, he just proclaims it as a fact. You’d almost think from the way he writes it that freshman ineligibility would somehow increase the academic workload of the athletes – but it wouldn’t, the academic requirements would be exactly the same as they are now. So how would that cause a mass exodus of elite athletes, especially when there is no existing alternative for them?

      I think there are some merits to freshman ineligibility, but if the merit you’re going for is forcing the hand of the big leagues, seems to me you’re way off the mark.

      In fairness, I haven’t read his books, and perhaps he outlines his logic better there and brings up points I haven’t thought of.

  7. “Let’s just jam the genie back into the bottle that we let out.” Yeah, that has worked every time it’s tried.

    If Roger Goodell, Arthur Blank, Jerry Jones, etc. thought they could make money on a developmental league, it would have been done years ago. They know it’s a losing proposition they don’t want to finance. I know I wouldn’t pay a dime for developmental league football no matter how it was structured and what the talent was.

    Why can’t the NCAA let go of the need to control what the student-athlete does outside of their student-athlete commitments and let them earn money on outside activities? If they want to sell a bowl jersey or a ring for cash or trade for tattoos, let them. If the local grocery store chain would like to have them appear on a commercial in exchange for money or free groceries, who cares as long as they aren’t using the university’s trademarked intellectual property? If an sports memorabilia company wants to pay a player $100 per hour to show up and sign items bought at the store or a person’s private property, what business is it of the NCAA? Make sure all of that gets reported to the NCAA and the university for compliance purposes. Simplify the rule book. The athlete pays his/her taxes on outside income. At that point, they are like any other student.

    • PatinDC

      I comltely understand the desire to allow these kids to make their own money. esp off their own images etc. The problem I see is that a small percentage of fns/alums can’t control themselves and have ruined that option for all.
      2. How do you control the team dynamics when J. Football is raking in 10’s of thousands for apperances and siging and not one else on the team, O-line anyone. is? HWhat doea that dof or moral.?
      1. How do you control the time honored tradition pf paying players, and I am not talking min. wage here, for no work. That is the primary problem that has gotten us to this point.

      • PatinDC

        Ugh. Please ignore that post with typos galore. Cut and paste fail.

        try this one:
        I completely understand the desire to allow these kids to make their own money. esp off their own images etc. The problem I see is that a small percentage of fans/alums can’t control them and have ruined that option for all.
        1. How do you manage the team dynamics when J. Football is racking in 10’s of thousands for appearances and signing and not one else on the team, O-line anyone, is? What does that do for moral?
        2. How do you control the time honored tradition of paying players, and I am not talking min. wage here, for no work. That is the historic problem that has gotten us to this point. How does your recruiting pitch sound when the AU car dealerships are lining up work-free jobs for everyone with “loaner” cars and the UGA dealers are not?
        I personally feel a stipend is the way to go for all scholarship athletes. It should be part of the cost.

        • Good points – I’ll try to address them:
          1) Team dynamics – that’s a good point and clearly what the coach’s challenge would be. Today’s solution is the easy way out to tell the 5-star recruit or the team’s MVP if the 2nd string nose guard can’t have it, you can’t either.
          2) As long as there’s full disclosure and people are paying their taxes, what can you do? The university can’t be associated with helping the student-athlete find employment/outside opportunities.
          3) I think the stipend goes along with the full cost of attendance scholarship. A kid who gets a Foundation Fellowship gets an annual stipend in addition to the other components of the scholarship. Athletes should get the same.

          The stipend is the minimum …

  8. Senator – While I doubt it would make a difference to the decision makers regarding investing in a developmental league, the NFL also wasn’t a $10 billion annual industry in 1972. I imagine the economics in the NFL at the time the freshman ineligibility rule was abolished are slightly different than they are now.

    Again, not saying that it would change their mind – but just to present the other side of the argument, I’d guess the NFL probably couldn’t afford to spend money on a non-guaranteed return in 1972 as opposed to where they stand now (i.e. basically printing money).

    • Like you said though, the issue has very little to do with whether the NFL can afford it.

      • The NFL and NBA don’t want this to change. Why should they? Minor league sports are a money loser for the franchises. If MLB had the opportunity to start over, they would want the same system the NFL and NBA enjoy with the college system.

      • Agreed completely that it doesn’t matter that they can now afford it because they don’t want to pay for it.

        I just felt that by excluding that side of the argument, we’re not really comparing apples to apples when comparing 1972 to 2014 by ignoring the economic realities of each respective era. I doubt they wanted to pay for a developmental league anymore in 1972 than they do now, but the difference is they probably couldn’t have afforded it then.

        • The economic realities are similar in 1972 to what they are today just add multiple zeroes to the end of the number. The college system has been the feeder to the NFL and the NBA from the start because the universities had their collegiate athletic programs for football and basketball in place before the professional leagues formed. Baseball and hockey had their minor league system in place before the colleges started those programs.

  9. ASEF

    Could the NFL create a 32-team junior league that would compete with the college game? In theory, yes. Logistically, no. The NBA can pull off a D-League (horrible name) because teams are small and arenas plentiful, making it easy to schedule games and move teams around. I’ve lost count of the number of alternative football products trotted out for public consumption. They all fail for largely the same reasons.

    • Yep. They fail because no one will come unless you give them four Cokes and hot dogs to go along with a dirt cheap ticket. They won’t be able to recruit the best coaches and professional development to develop the players without the owners going deep into their pockets. They won’t develop a fan following with allegiance and the national draw. Finally, the networks won’t pay top dollar for it because of all of the reasons listed above. The only way this ever happens is if the universities closed down their athletic programs and 90,000 seat stadiums became white elephants on campus.

  10. wnc dawg

    I haven’t had the time to read through both articles linked yet, but I don’t think freshman ineligibility is the silver bullet. However, with the (re)institution of it, and a concerted PR campaign, the college game could perhaps force the NFL’s hand. I doubt they could move the needle enough to make it happen, but it’d be interesting theater, for sure.

    But does anybody believe Delany really wants the elite players to have options? Especially since the man has TV contracts coming up for negotiations in a couple of years.

    Being that athletes, even those forbidden to have representation, seem to have more awareness now about their options (financial agreements, tangible movement on unionizing, etc), when will we get the age discrimination lawsuit from an NBA/NFL prospect? It has to be coming, no?

    • I don’t have a problem with a high school player declaring immediately for the draft instead of going to college. It would be interesting to see one take on the establishment in court. When the kid doesn’t get drafted or gets cut, I don’t think he should then be able to sign a scholarship to play collegiate sports. If you take the risk and it doesn’t work out, as Junior would say, good luck pumping gas for the rest of your life.

  11. Derek

    From my perspective the complaints that football programs are the new plantations extracting immense value with little return AND colleges excepting questionable characters with little chance (or interest) to succeed academically are two sides of the same coin. I don’t think people who are interested in the sheepskin are nearly as concerned that they are being used as the ones that are only worried about professional sports, because the reality is that for the person who values the education, it really isn’t a raw deal at all. Would you practice 20 hours a week for for half the year for a free education at Stanford or Vandy or Duke? I know I would. Would you work 20 hours a week for free so some University can make a ton of money off your talents while you are waiting three years to become draft eligible? I wouldn’t either.

    To begin paying the players is simply succumbing to the existing dynamic that I would rather see the colleges correct. If you want to show the NFL that big time college isn’t a D-League for them, stop admitting the questionable and marginal student-athletes. The vast majority of scholarship football players and BB players ought to be kids who could have gotten into that school on academic merit alone.

    A few things happen: 1) Serious athletes will focus on academics earlier in their HS careers. 2) If a sufficient number of top talented players are seen falling through the cracks, the NFL and NBA will have to find way to catch them. 3) Once there is a paying option for college age football and BB players and they want to get paid, they will have that option available to them.

    As for those who think that interest in the sport would wane if there were a talent drop, I just don’t see that. At the end of the day, don’t we just want to beat UT and UF and Auburn and Bama? If talent were the issue why aren’t the Falcons bigger than the Bulldogs in the state of Georgia?

    • Outstanding post – I laugh at those who compare college athletics to a plantation. I also laugh at those who think all athletes should get a degree before entering the professional ranks. I don’t have a problem with a university that bends its admissions criteria to give an athlete a chance at a college education at a place like Duke, Northwestern, Stanford, Vandy, UGA, UNC, Georgia Tech, etc. I don’t like the majors designed specifically to keep athletes eligible but not worth anything else and the academic fraud that cheapens the college education.

    • “Would you work 20 hours a week for free so some University can make a ton of money off your talents while you are waiting three years to become draft eligible? I wouldn’t either.” Nonsense. That’s not the focus of the freshman fb player. My attorney always cautioned me about looking at the other sides potential gain s when buying and selling real estate. He always pushed me to make my margin and if they quadrupled it so be it. Not my deal. If you always worry about what those on the other side of the table make you underestimate their risk. You want to be that guy on the other side of the table? Put the time in and build what they have and then you can make the same calls. Those kids are lucky they are gifted athletes. Let them make the most of that. They can be Michael Jordan later. But they don’t enter the game at the same level as Universities.

      • Derek

        Simply put, bullshit. If I am jadaveon clowney I am pissed that the nfl and NCAA essentially robbed me of millions of dollars by arbitrarily deciding that he couldn’t play in the nfl in 2013. The system isn’t always set up to do kids favors or to act in their interests. It is very much set up to protect the nfl and the football powers in the ncaa. If I am able to play pro and some asshat wants me to go to math class just because “thems the rules”and they make money and I don’t I’d be a fool not to protest.

  12. “I don’t have a problem with a university that bends its admissions criteria to give an athlete a chance at a college education ” These kids aren’t college students. They were barely HS students. Putting them classes with real students hasn’t worked out. That has been well documented. The way to deal with their lack of aptitude and scholastic ability is the …”the majors designed specifically to keep athletes eligible “. And it really isn’t funny at all. And if you bend the rules for one group you should bend them for all groups. Not just your preferred under achievers .

    • I don’t understand your solution to the issue. My only point is to give the kid with an athletic talent a chance to get a college education and make that education worth something. You can have success in the classroom and on the playing field.

    • Always Someone Else's Fault

      No, the solution is stop passing them along and pretending that they are being educated. Community colleges bring students who wouldn’t even meet NCAA standards up to college academic speed quickly. If they need to spend a couple of years there first (and a lot do), so be it.

      A lot of academic support and tutoring services aren’t populated by people who aren’t really trained to deal with deficits that acceptance exceptions (note I said the exceptions) bring with them. If you’re going to accept them, be prepared to deal with them.

      • Good points all, well said
        If you want have competitive athletics, you have to offer admission to some student-athletes who are going to need assistance with the academic rigor of a large university. As a result, the athletic department and the university need to do what’s necessary to prepare the student to get through the curriculum. They don’t have to be Aaron Murray-type of students, but the kids who want to get the education offered should get it in a field of study where they can make a living if pro sports doesn’t work out.

  13. 69Dawg

    I think ole Jim is blowing smoke. Don’t mean to hi-jack the thread but the colleges are the next logical plaintiffs for the class of players that played college but did not go pro. Damn big class if the courts rule that concussions are actionable. Jim is looking for a little goodwill cover when the complaints hit the fan. Today the colleges are in a near indefensible position when it comes to athletes. Ok a scholarship is great but as has been put forth by the Northwestern football players they want more. Not money but protection while giving their all for the team. Think about the cases of catastrophic injury that end up having to be funded by the Alumni taking up collections. Chucky Mullins comes to mind. Why would any parent let their child play a sport that could cripple them for life, end in mental health issues or just flat out kill them? There are risks involved that the schools have been able to put on the athlete. Here we come back to the economics of the participants. Some of these kid’s parents can afford the insurance and some can not. The NCAA is a joke in this regard. As a requirement to be a member of the NCAA, the NAIA or any other governing body the member institutions should have to fully insure the players for not just the time they are playing but for any disability that might occur as a result of their playing. Require them to keep accurate records of the types of injuries, the extent of those injuries and the care given. If a player has a number of concussions (number to be decided by the governing body not by the damn coaches) then he/she is medically disqualified but keeps the scholly and the insurance. These requirements would no doubt end football and soccer in the smaller schools, so be it. How can they possibly cover everybody for such a contingency, let the actuaries figure it out. All I know is they (NCAA and the schools) had better do something to get in front of this or when the ship hits the sand college contact sports will be gone.

  14. 69Dawg

    Now back to our regularly schedule thread. As long as the colleges determine their entrance requirements somebody will cheat for an advantage. Even if like now the NCAA sets a standard it will still screw some schools and help others. UGA is not Stanford. We might want to start having divisions created by the academic ranking of the school so the brains play the brains and the good ole boys play the good ole boys. Either way Tech loses.