A suggestion I’ve seen repeatedly offered as a way out of the NCAA’s amateurism trap is the European soccer model. And this does sound appealing:
Players enter the Ajax academy when they are as young as seven, and train to become professional players. Though private tutors provide a secondary education, Ajax and other European clubs make no pretensions about the arrangement: they are training soccer players, not “student athletes.” After school, the worst players get cut and return to civilian life, the better players star professionally for Ajax, and the best players are “sold” when another team purchases their contract for an often exorbitant fee. Why so much cash? A fully developed star is a rare commodity, and big money teams like Manchester City are willing to be exorbitant fees to acquire one. Last summer, Spanish super club Real Madrid paid London’s Tottenham Hotspur a reported $132 million to acquire Welsh star Gareth Bale. The Dutch model (buy low, sell high!) has been copied across Europe. In recent years, the sale of five Ajax players netted the team $80 million in transfer fees as bigger teams purchased Ajax’s premier talent.
So what would a European-style development system look like in American sports? Imagine if the Cleveland Browns had to pay the Texas A&M directly for the rights to Johnny “Football” Manziel. Want LeBron James? Let’s start the bidding at $50 million. The days of the draft, the annual pro sports meat market where scouts drool over college prospects, would be over.
Money. Yum. Manna from heaven if you’re the school that won the lottery with a stud player. (And, sure, you could tweak the system to make it more academically palatable.)
But there’s an obvious catch with this arrangement.
Big teams in big markets would pay top dollar and get the best players, and the relative parity that characterizes many American sports leagues would vanish. In such a competitive economic environment, professional teams would be incentivized to develop their own players; big-time college sports, long cloaked in a veneer of amateurism, could become a distant memory.
That’s what happened to baseball’s minor leagues in the first half of the 20th century. Major league owners got tired of shelling out major bucks for stars developed by independent minor league teams, so people like Branch Rickey took the obvious step by co-opting the minors with their own controlled farm systems. And that was the end of meaningful, independent minor league baseball.
Now, you can look at this as the author does and see it as a welcome, if radical development that might be necessary to save colleges from themselves, but I question whether coaches, athletic directors and presidents at schools with powerhouse athletics departments would share your point of view. Does anyone think that Alabama’s current business model survives intact if Nick Saban is coaching kids who would have been at best lower-tier Sun Belt players? I doubt Saban does.
Any sort of successor protocol to the NCAA’s amateurism model is going to have to be one that continues to allow the five-star studs to pass through the Alabamas of the college athletics world. Put it this way – notice how articles like this never make an effort to get the players’ point of view? Coaches want the talent, even if it’s for a limited amount of time.