Last week, SI ran a big article about the surprising impact that rookies are having throughout the NFL. Instead of being redshirted as in the past, first-year players like Jahri Evans, Mark Anderson, and Reggie Bush are starting—and sometimes starring—in the pros.
The article concluded that there are three reasons why college prospects now have little trouble making the transition from being student-athletes to professional ones:
1. College coaches with NFL experience have installed professional-type offenses in many Division I programs, meaning that rookies face less of a learning curve in moving form one level to the next.
2. The college "workday"—the practice and workout schedule for athletes in major programs—mimics that of the NFL.
3. From January to September, after the college football season ends, a rookie-to-be's preparation for the NFL has become a more or less full-time job.
Simple enough, right? Unfortunately, while SI was marveling at how well Reggie and friends are doing in the NFL, the article completely ignored the real implications of that success:
First, college players don't have trouble making the transition to the pros because college players are pros, even though they're not paid that way.
And perhaps more importantly, that professionalism necessarily comes at the expense of education. How can a rookie prepare full-time for the NFL beginning in January of his senior year and still hope to graduate? The short answer: He can't.
NCAA President Myles Brand recently bragged that the graduation rate of men's basketball players jumped from 43 to 46 percent in recent years. Forty-six percent! Unsaid is that the 46 percent includes all male roundball players, not just those at major schools. Has the NCAA released the graduation rates of starters from schools that made the Sweet Sixteen? Of course not. And do they want anyone to see the same numbers for players who started on BCS bowl teams? I'm guessing the answer's probably no.
None of this would bother me if student-athletes were compensated as professionals. But they're not. Instead, the system essentially forces them to work for free—and the stakes for breaking the rules are sky high. Thinking about letting a booster buy you a cool car, or treating you to a night on the town?
Get caught, and you could end up out of work.
Meanwhile, Brand took home $870,185 in 2004 (the latest date for which data is available), and the NCAA earned $500,240,721 in revenue that same year. Neither of those figures, incidentally, made it into the Sports Illustrated article.
Maybe the no-compensation rules would be all right if every student-athlete grew up to make big bucks in the pros. But plenty of athletes get injured or otherwise wash out in college...and their dreams of monster paydays go kaput. Only a fraction of college football and basketball players ever make it to the NFL or NBA, and even fewer hang around long enough to make a living. The consolation prize? Bad hips and bad knees—and a pathetic set of job skills to fall back on, despite having spent years pretending to attend college while helping the NCAA turn an oversized profit.
At least the NBA allows high school stars to bypass college and jump straight to the pros. It's a different story in the NFL, where a player must be three years removed from his high school graduation to be eligible for the draft. As the Maurice Clarett case proved, no court's going to force the NFL to change that policy anytime soon.
So what's the solution here?
Let's be realistic: College athletes are never going to get paid what they're worth. Big-time college sports pleases too many alums and fans exactly the way it is—and alums and fans also happen to be registered voters. No politician's going to push for change when his constituents aren't clamoring for it.
Instead, my modest proposal is that all students who receive athletic scholarships in Division I college programs be allowed to return to school and graduate after their pro careers are over. Tuition-free. Expenses paid. With tutors helping them just like when those "students" were playing ball. All provided by the college, as fair compensation for the years the players played for free.
Expensive? You bet. Colleges would squeal like stuck pigs. They would wail about limited financial resources, and sob over non-revenue programs. They'd claim that the new policy would deny athletes in non-major sports the opportunity to attend college on scholarship. What about the synchronized swimmers?, they'd say. What about the the synchronized swimmers?
But who's kidding whom?
Any team that plays regularly in March Madness is a huge cash cow for its school. The judge in a class action lawsuit brought by players who want the NCAA to allow its member schools to pay the full expenses of attending college—including travel to and from an athlete's home—recently wrote that football scholarships amount to only 12 percent of the total revenue generated by Division I-A programs. College hoops players get an even smaller share of the pie: 5.9 percent.
By comparison, the price tag for a program to let athletes return to school would look like pocket change. And, such a program would give colleges and the NCAA an incentive to set up a system that would educate student-athletes the first time around, when they're enrolled as undergraduates.
Colleges have a history of convincing themselves that they're above the law. Twenty years ago, the Justice Department caught the Ivy League schools and a number of other elite colleges in a conspiracy to drive up the price of tuition. Had corporate CEOs pulled a similar stunt, they would've been put in the slammer for anti-trust violations—with enormous public hue and cry. The colleges, on the other hand, were simply forced to stop the practice. No jail time. No convictions or economic penalties. No accountability at all. (And tuitions continue to rise in lockstep, by the way, even two decades later.)
It's the same story now with uncompensated athletes: Colleges are free to exploit their labor force all they want, and no one dares do anything to stop them. Lincoln freed the slaves in 1863, right? Apparently the crew at the NCAA never got the memo.