Michelle Kaufmann, columnist for the Miami Herald, has a take on Johnny Manziel that is not without controversy but is squarely in the mainstream. Kaufmann’s arguments can be summed up:
- Rules and rules and if Manziel broke the rules, he should be punished.
- Those rules are unfair and outdated.
- Athletes receive enough that they are not exploited by their university or the NCAA.
- Solutions to pay college athletes have too many problems to be workable.
Any of those points can be debated. But Kaufmann’s overarching solution should be the focus:
The best solution is to end the charade that is “amateur” football. There is nothing amateur about big-time college football and the awarding of football scholarships.It is a free farm system for the NFL. Junior tennis players and high school baseball prospects skip college altogether, and basketball phenoms and football players should have the same opportunity. If you can command five figures for a stack of autographs, you should be Johnny Professional Football.
Individual sports like tennis are tough to include, but there is no shortage of examples in team sports like soccer and hockey. Kaufmann’s larger point, that the pay-for-play debate changes radically if college is not the best option for top players, has widespread support. Even the NCAA’s biggest critic, Joe Nocera, tends to concede the point:
Players have no choice but to go to college to pursue their profession. (Baseball and hockey players can go pro directly from high school.) A baseball player who chooses college over the minor leagues is a true amateur.
If you believe amateurism rules work for most athletes, but a small fraction suffers a real loss, then this idea is seductive. Everyone wins and everyone loses. The NCAA and its members keep their rules intact, but lose the best players. Professional leagues still have a free minor league, but have to take on a small number of the very best immediately. Everyone has some skin in the game.
But football and basketball do not need similar solutions. Basketball is a mostly solved problem. Between the preps-to-pros era and concepts from European sport clubs, a workable system for removing college basketball from the development path is well within reach.
Football is a different animal. Because of football’s American focus, we have little history of alternatives to scholastic development. The biggest innovation to date in removing football from high school and college campuses is not even real football. Players skipping college basketball would be returning to a model we know well. Players skipping college football would be an entirely new thing.
Physical development is much different as well. A high schooler who jumps to the NBA before he is ready might hurt his career, but physically he is probably not going to suffer long-term harm. Moving to the NFL right out of high school could result in serious injury given the speed, power and violence of the game. The NFL is also not eager to take on even more concussion risk.
For football players to skip college, they need a full-fledged alternative to college football. That might be an NFL reserve league heavily geared toward young players or an under-23 minor league. Significant additional infrastructure is needed, while in basketball just a decision to do it is necessary.
Between draft age limits, de facto minor leagues and the idea of professionalizing ever lower rungs on the developmental ladder, perhaps mainstream opinion is starting to come around to the realization that this is a systemic problem that goes beyond the NCAA. You cannot fix all the ills in sport, or even in college athletics alone, just by focusing on that short detour on the cradle-to-grave road of an elite athlete.