Nobody’s clean.

I’ve had a few people ask me what I think about Taylor Branch’s impressively researched article in the Atlantic Monthly about college sports.  My response is that no piece like that gives a complete picture of the problem without seriously acknowledging the understandable passivity of the NBA and NFL with regard to creating a professional alternative to big boy college athletics.

Why should they, of course, is the valid response.  The pro leagues get a free pass on the risk and expense of training.  They also benefit from the free marketing of new stars.  It’s a fabulous deal for them.

It’s not so great for athletes who don’t want to be student-athletes, though.  The thing is, I have a hard time placing all the blame for their situation on those on the college end.  It seems to me that the NCAA is well within its rights as an organization to insist on certain rules and regulations that it expects its members and its student-athletes to adhere to.

The problem is that the NCAA and the schools are a little bit pregnant themselves.

It’s one thing to say to a student-athlete that he or she cannot be allowed to profit from his or her name to preserve some sort of amateurism standard.  It’s quite another to take financial advantage of that name while simultaneously denying the same opportunity to the player.  You can argue whether that may or may not be corrupt, but it certainly corrupts the very standard those academic institutions claim to uphold.

All of which is my long-winded way of seconding Dan Shanoff’s excellent, elegant solution to the mess college sports has gotten itself into:

… The easiest solution is to simply create a true minor-league for pro football that takes the best potential-pro players out of the college system and puts them in a paid training program, leaving everyone else comfortable with the deal they are getting.

That being said, if it were truly easy, somebody would have already done it.  That’s one reason I’m amused by Mark Cuban’s bluster about a college football playoff – if you’ve got the money to do something big that bypasses the BCS, why not go for the whole enchilada and set up your own pro league and playoff?  Could it be that as the owner of an NBA team, there’s only so far you’re willing to go?

17 Comments

Filed under College Football, It's Just Bidness, The NCAA

17 responses to “Nobody’s clean.

  1. Senator, great comments as usual. The NFL (and NBA) have absolutely no motivation to change anything right now. Bob Kraft, Arthur Blank, Jerry Jones, etc. aren’t dummies. If they knew they could set up a developmental system for future professionals and make money at it, they would have done it years ago. The colleges have been more than happy to play that role as they see the money come rolling in through football and men’s basketball to support the rest of their athletic programs. The athletes who want to get an education have a great opportunity regardless of whether they ever get a paycheck from a professional sports team. The athletes who don’t get great training to prepare for their professional careers. Other than trading on the players’ likenesses, I just don’t get the mentality that these guys are exploited. If the opportunity to get an education valued at over $150K or more is exploitation, I would have been more than happy to be exploited.

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  2. Go Dawgs!

    I scoff at the idea that creating a minor league for football and basketball is the “easy” solution. It’s certainly not an “inexpensive” solution for the NFL and NBA, considering that right now they get the service provided for them for free. If a young athlete is either not intelligent enough or not well-behaved enough to get through the NCAA’s system, well, there are plenty of other gifted players who were. From their perspective, they probably figure they might even miss out on future problem athletes by not worrying too much about who the NCAA may be leaving behind.

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  3. heyberto

    I think the thing that makes it difficult to make a pro minor league viable is simply the reliability of alumni to support their alma mater. Why start a league when it exists with fan bases that buy season tickets annually? Some of that would change if a minor league pro league drew talent away, but I don’t think there would be a tremendous drop-off in season tickets sold amongst the traditional football schools. I think the challenge would be to draw college football fans away from their schools to be enthused and engaged fans for a pro league that has no history or tradition. You’d see a dilution across the board in quality on the field, but the onus would be on the new league to prove itself. How well did that work out for alternative pro leagues like the USFL or the XFL? They weren’t true college alternatives, but still… any ‘minor league’ football league would face the same challenges.

    Back to the issue of drawing fans… a new ‘amateur’ league might cause some college programs that aren’t financially sustainable to drop out, but I don’t see UGA suddenly struggle to sell season tickets. I’m not saying there wouldn’t be a drop-off, and perhaps future TV deals would shrink.. but there is a huge segment that would never waver. Any new league would need to prove itself, which would take a LOT of time. The college game would have to deteriorate significantly in the minds of alumni and fans so that it would no longer be a viable alternative. I don’t know that I could see a new league would have the financial wherewithal to wait that long.

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    • Zdawg

      Why would the league have to prove itself? I can’t imagine baseball minor leagues and basketball developmental leagues make much, but they do serve a purpose for their respective pro versions.

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      • heyberto

        But.. do those leagues make money? Honestly, I don’t know.. but I suspect on the whole, they don’t, and if some teams do, it’s not much. It’s all subsidized by some big league money. Owners won’t want to help finance a minor league for football when they have the college ranks that effectively do that for them. Which means this minor league version of football have to be self-sustaining as a minor league system. It hasn’t worked for alternative pro leagues, so why would it in the situation outlined above?

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  4. baltimore dawg

    i dislike the piece not so much for what it says but for what it is. there’s nothing at all novel in branch’s critique. what’s “new” about it is a publication like the atlantic taking the problems of college athletics and elevating them to the status of social cause through the words of one of the nation’s great chroniclers of social justice, all as he asserts that college athletics is not a plantation system–it’s just colonialism.

    i guess it’s just the southerner in me, but that kind of yankeefied dumpster diving makes me want to puke.

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    • Ridley

      Mr. Branch is from Atlanta, graduated from Westminster and Chapel Hill, and now lives in Baltimore, MD. While he did attend Princeton for his master’s degree, I’d say that hardly qualifies him as a yankee. Maybe liberalified dumpster diving provides a better description here.

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      • baltimore dawg

        thanks but i actually know branch’s background. i was referring to the atlantic, which only expresses an interest in such topics by elevating their status to a level commensurate with the presumed lofty expectations of their mostly urban and northeastern readership.

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  5. WCHeadhunter

    Careful what you ask for, The logical entity with the resources and influence to create some kind of college football all-star league would be the dreaded four-letter network.
    Also, if you take all the best players away then every game becomes Princeton vs. Colgate circa 1933. Good luck filling 92,000 seats with that.

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  6. JBJ

    I wonder why they don’t try to use the Arena Football League as a kind of minor league.

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    • heyberto

      Strategically, would it be detrimental to honing a player or certain positions for the full field of play? I ask because I don’t know.

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  7. David

    The minor league football concept wouldn’t make sense and wouldn’t be near as profitable as college football. That’s why it would never happen. They need to piggyback upon the love fans and alumni have for these schools. I’d guess college baseball is more popular and a bigger tv draw than minor league baseball. The players and level of play is much better in the minors, but nobody cares. Sure local minor league teams draw a local, loyal fan base. But I wouldn’t care about 2 minor league teams from Texas playing on tv, even if I knew both rosters were loaded with future pro talent. But I would watch the Diamond Dawgs play, even if they didn’t have anyone that would ever play pro.

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  8. Deal or No Deal?

    Sports is all about — only about — identification, and people do not identify with minor league basketball and football. Not in sufficient quantities or passion to support a real business model with developing athletes. In the college game, people root PURELY for laundry, to borrow a phrase from (Bill Simmons?). Alabama fans do not tune in Georgia to see AJ Green. They’re flipping back and forth between the Tennessee and Auburn games hoping one or both lose. Ditto in reverse with Julio Jones.

    Again – free tuition, free room, free board, free books, free medical, free training, free academic support…. We throw so much at our athletes. Nothing’s ever enough. I don’t blame them for that; I blame us. I don’t begrudge a full-cost scholarship, and I have no issue with extending the term of the grant-in-aid. I would even go so far as to allow coaches to move kids who might be struggling to handle both football and academics into a special scholarship fund which keeps them in the program but off the field and official counter list. The universities can afford that. However, given all that, I’m getting tired of people treating a free college diploma as it were an afterthought in this whole equation. I work with too many kids who end up at Blue Ridge Community College or AB Tech, even though they were accepted at larger (and more expensive) universities, because they just can’t afford it, even with financial aid.

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    • Mayor of Dawgtown

      Do you not think that a minor league football team would do well in a small town market like Macon? The Gwinnett Braves and the Rome Braves minor league baseball teams seem to be drawing just fine.

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      • Deal or No Deal?

        No, I don’t. Minor leagues, alternative leagues, and developmental leagues for professional football and basketball litter the landscape. You can scrape something together, but it’s not going to attract the caliber of athlete that Georgia, Alabama or Florida recruits. Not even close.

        Baseball’s minor league system is sort of like Europe’s rail system – an infrastructure that was built in a different era for a different purpose. MLB would never drop the sort of start-up money today to create those teams and stadiums. And, knowing a few people who went through the minor-league ringer, I really don’t know that sort of environment is really in the best interest of 18-21 year olds. The Dream short-circuited college for all of them, and they broke down their bodies climbing the ladder. Two went the PED route at the end and really screwed themselves up. It took them a couple of years “in the real world” to get back on track.

        All this so we can feel better about the “exploitation” of kids who get a full free ride? Much better ways to accomplish that, IMO.

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  9. GT Fan

    An NFL minor league or developmental league would not have to be anything fancy. Here’s one possible construct: The league as a whole would own 6 teams of 50 players each. Each year at the time for draft declaration, college players and graduating high school players can request admission into the development league. The NFL polls each NFL team and based on that poll admits the players most desirable by the teams to the extent there is room available.

    The players earn a modest paycheck (maybe $15k/yr), train, practice, and play. I know $15k/yr isn’t much, but playing football sure beats flipping burgers and the players will have an off season available to them to seek temporary employment for extra income (not uncommon in baseball’s minor leagues).

    When the next draft rolls around, the older players (e.g. age 21+) are automatically eligible for and entered into the draft. Selected younger players of interest to the NFL teams would also be eligible and entered into the draft. Both sets of players would compete with the college players to be drafted. Development league players not drafted are either resigned to the development league or released as free agents, as determined by a poll of the NFL teams. Players not eligible for the draft remain on the team until they reach draft eligibility.

    As for the development league games, they wouldn’t necessarily have to have their own stadiums or facilities. What you could do is let the teams play during the NFL off season and use the various NFL stadiums and facilities. Two teams could share the same stadium and facilities for a couple weeks and play a few games and then one of the teams could travel to a different city and another one of the teams would come to town for a couple weeks. Then the team that originally stayed behind could go to another city. Basically you would have a collection of traveling teams that tour the NFL cities (and perhaps other cities) and give fans a taste of the future during the middle of the offseason. The development league players off season would start sometime before the NFL preseason and would end sometime after the NFL postseason.

    I’m sure there a few obstacles to implementing such a league right away, but I really doubt there are anything that would prevent it from happening in the long term. It’s just a matter of the NFL teams having sufficient motivation. Obviously, that motivation doesn’t exist today.

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