**Editor’s Note: This article was written in 2011, but it seems like there is a need to revisit it at least once a year.**
Over the past year the NCAA has made a mockery of its own oversight responsibilities and rendered itself irrelevant. The NCAA is proving to be an ad-hoc governing body with no consistency in their rulings. As a result, they are encouraging players to push the bounds of impropriety.
In the interest of understanding the problem and identifying a solution, let’s break down the problem systematically and see where the answer lies.
First, let’s look at the current path to the pro ranks:
- Sick high school athlete with talent enough to play on Sundays
- Chooses a college to display his skills (probably Florida, natch)
- Plays as long as necessary to prove he’s got Sunday-level skills
- Gets drafted by NFL team
The idea that professional football is merely an ancillary outgrowth of college football is the root cause of the tension in the system. Every sport but football has realized this fact and provided a non-college alternative to reaching the pro ranks.
Why do we force young men with Sunday-level talent to attend college as a pre-requisite to playing a game that, in all honesty, does not require a college education? The answer is, because it is an historical artifact, the residue of the way things have always been done.
So we create a fiction around ‘student-athletes’ as college students who just happen to have the skills to go on to play professional football. In reality, what we have are would-be professional athletes who go to college because they’re told they have to in order to play on Sunday.
I don’t mean to disparage true student-athletes, which make up the vast majority of college athletes. However, there is a small but highly-visible portion of college football players who couldn’t care less about being in college, or the education that comes with it. For them, college is a Potemkin education tolerated as a hurdle on the path to an NFL career. This attitude fuels the lack of respect for educational responsibilities and rules compliance we see on campuses from coast to coast. This latter group is giving an increasingly bad name to true student-athletes. But what else should we expect; they don’t want to be there in the first place.
Presiding over this fiction is the NCAA, charged with the unenviable task of convincing the world that the emperor is, in fact, beautifully clothed. Consequently, the NCAA issues tortured rulings like we’ve seen this past year with Cam Newton and the players at Ohio State.
Accepting that this fiction is the root of the problem, lets see what an alternate, more honest, approach might look like – one that separates the professional athlete career track from a mandatory college education. Why should college be a pre-requisite to playing professional football, after all?
Therefore, I humbly propose the following:
Create regional sports academies
The academies would exist separately from the college system, with no explicit academic requirements. They could, and should, include an educational component, but the work could be focused on things more applicable to professional athletes, topics like selecting agents, investment, contractual terms, union rules, etc. Players could be modestly paid and otherwise taken care of, with no fear of NCAA reprisals.
A minimum threshold number of academies would be necessary to ensure adequate competition, as they would not compete within the network of NCAA-regulated colleges. The more academies, the deeper the competitive pool would be, thus allowing players to hone and showcase their abilities for NFL scouts.
It might even be possible for the Academy Division Champion to play the winner of the College Playoff [double pipe-dream].
Ensure the sports academies are adequately accommodated by the NFL
This is not likely to be a serious impediment since the NFL will find the talent wherever it resides. For the academies to be successful, the players coming through the programs need to have access to the combine and draft equal to that of existing college players.
Reaffirm the primary educational nature of the college experience
By creating an alternate venue for the pro-athlete track you can sharpen the focus on college student-athletes without unfairly impacting anyone.
No longer would sob-story excuses of colleges taking advantage of poor athletes carry much weight. You’re either a student-athlete voluntarily subjecting yourself to all applicable rules and regulations in exchange for an education that you value, or you attend one of the academies, where you are paid and get to live according to a different set of rules.
At this point you’re asking yourself, “Great, where do I sign up?” Well, you can sign up, but it won’t mean anything. Let’s look at why a plan like this will never be implemented.
Colleges and universities face a loss of prestige and revenue as a result of whatever success the academies achieve on the field. The academies are likely to field very good teams.
Concededly, it might take decades for the academies to develop fan bases remotely close to today’s colleges. In addition, the average Joe is likely to have less of a connection to an academy since they are not likely to ever attend one. But let’s face it, a significant portion of the fan bases of colleges and universities are not alumni. And since there is likely to be a drop-off in the talent level prowling the fields of major college football programs across the country, the academies would eventually develop strong fan followings, at the expense of colleges and universities. And that is likely to cost universities money in the end.
The situation, then, is not dissimilar to the current BCS vs. playoff controversy. Incumbent colleges and universities will fight vehemently against a perceived threat.
But, if I can naively hope for a playoff, then I can just as easily hope to see sports academies across the country. They would provide a path to the pro ranks for amazing athletes who otherwise wouldn’t have a viable shot at playing in the NFL…at least, not without lying to themselves and the colleges they attend.
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