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NCAA’s Role in Baseball Development

Jim Hendry, former general manager of the Chicago Cubs, faults the NCAA for the dearth of American baseball talent:

But Hendry said the NCAA only allots 11.7 college scholarships per 27 players, a number that is dwarfed by football in particular. A college used to be able to get up to 30 scholarships, he said.

“It’s a crime the NCAA has allowed this to happen.”

It was a long, long time ago that college baseball teams had 30 scholarships. The last time baseball scholarship limits were reduced was 1991, when they received a 10% cut from 13 to the current 11.7 equivalencies. The last change of any kind was baseball’s academic reform package which limited those 11.7 scholarships to 27 counters and set a minimum 25% scholarship.

Major League Baseball has made the more recent and drastic change to the money available for young players. In the most recent collective bargaining agreement, teeth were added to MLB’s slotting system for draft picks. Teams have a budget for their draft picks based on draft position, and exceeding that budget leads to luxury taxes and forfeiting draft picks. This has the effect of pushing more athletes to the NCAA, which many in the baseball community argue has too few scholarships.

During the push for baseball’s academic reform package, former Mississippi State head coach Ron Polk argued that professional baseball was inappropriate as an alternative because few athletes made it:

Since the MLB Free-Agent Player Draft has been in its current form (starting in 1966) only 5% of all players have ever played at least one game in the big leagues.

That includes, according to Polk, only 48% of first round picks who made it to the majors.

The assumption has always been that if athletes need something to fall back on, college athletics has to provide that. The logic goes that if only 5% of players make it to the majors, more need to play college baseball to get a degree. Not only does that ignore college baseball’s historically poor (but possibly improving) graduation rates, but it also assumes that athletes should obtain a degree before their professional career.

There is no reason why MLB could not take a page from Major League Soccer’s playbook and make education a priority. MLS’ early entry system, known as Generation Adidas, sets aside a portion of player’s salary in an escrow account for college tuition. For the 2012 MLB Draft, signing bonus slots ran from $7.2 million down to $125,000 (or $100,000 after round 10). At the top end money could simply be reserved from the existing signing bonus and at the bottom money could be added along with some reserved from the signing bonus and salary.

Hendy hit on the real problem, while at the same time revealing the lack of imagination in most American sports with fixing the development system:

Meanwhile, the quality of American players declines, Hendry said, as inner-city youths and poor white players in particular go into sports with more scholarships and players drop baseball earlier. And children from divorced families can’t afford to play.

“And just building (baseball) complexes and fields in the inner city isn’t enough.”

Hendry is absolutely correct that baseball’s problem starts long before an athlete starts thinking about a college scholarship. And Hendry is absolutely correct that simply providing playing space is not enough. Where Hendry goes off the rails is the assumption that the NCAA must provide the second piece of the puzzle (larger scholarships) and that will fix the problem.

The second flaw in Hendry’s assumption, that this will be sufficient to fix the dearth of American baseball talent, is the easiest to address. To reduce the number of kids who drop baseball earlier or never pick it up at all, there need to be better options for youth players. Building fields is not enough. There need to be well run youth clubs, from Little League to elite leagues preparing players for college or professional baseball. And those clubs must charge players little or nothing to play and foot the bill for all the expenses.

But the more first idea Hendry is promoting is the one which creates problems for the NCAA. And really, it is an existential crisis for the association, a fork in the road the NCAA has been idling at for years ignoring a decision that has to be made sooner rather than later.

Whether you believe the NCAA’s place as the de facto minor league for football and basketball is an accident of history or result of a conspiracy, the fact is that for years the NCAA has publicly disclaimed its interest in holding that place. That disclaimer comes in words like NCAA President Mark Emmert arguing for a return to the preps-to-pros era in the NBA. It comes in actions like every increasing initial eligibility standards. And it comes in inaction like the lack of urgency to do anything to avoid being shut out of the soccer development process.

In fact, it is right there in what has become the most public motto of the NCAA:

There are over 400,000 student athletes and just about every one of them will go pro in something other than sports.

Yet various groups like the National College Players Association, the O’Bannon plaintiffs, large portions of the sports media and now Jim Hendry want the NCAA to be run for that portion, however small, of those 400,000 athletes that are going pro in sports.

The NCAA has been stuck at this crossroads for so long because while the association can have an opinion, there is only so much it can do. As long as there are draft age limits, no minor leagues that are viable alternatives for the best football and basketball players, and no organized youth development for most sports, the NCAA cannot quietly exit from its place in the lifecycle of an athlete. If the NCAA did, it have to be through a drastic and messy gesture.

So if, as Jim Hendry says, what the NCAA has done to baseball is criminal, the best way to punish the NCAA would be to freeze them out. MLB could invest in youth development, allow signing bonuses to creep back up, invest in players’ education, and ensure that few if any professional prospects play college baseball. This would be especially damaging to the sport just as it looks poised to become a significant revenue generator.

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