A few days ago, the NLRB gave the Northwestern Football Team permission to form a union to represent them. As of today, there are really more questions than there are answers. However, the CEO of the Green Bay Packers, Mark Murphy, says that it may force the NFL to form their own development league, although he did not explain how that could happen.
I am one who thinks that the NFL should anyway. Currently, college athletics is the only training ground for the NFL. Out of the 5 major sports in North America, the NFL is the only league at this time where the only way to the pros is through College Athletics, although the NBA only gives lip-service to its development league today and also relies on America’s universities as its primary training ground.
Who can blame the NFL for relying so heavily on colleges? Many American universities have intense fan followings. A popular player from college brings his fan following to the NFL. It’s a way to see more merchandise and perhaps some tickets as well. But it really isn’t the best way to go.
Although I don’t know of any official studies, there is scant evidence that college makes athletes better. If you want evidence otherwise, look at European Soccer, what is known as football in most of the rest of the world. In the World Cup in Brazil this summer, you will notice that most of the players on the pitch were developed through farm systems similar to the minor league baseball system in the United States. Out of the 32 teams in the FIFA World Cup this year, you probably won’t find a starting 11 that have a university education.
In American sports, you have players like NBA Hall-of-Famer Moses Malone and current best-ever player Labron James who never earned a university education. Not to mention that the Baseball Hall of Fame is full of those who never earned one credit from a university before playing professionally. The NFL probably doesn’t need the athletes to earn a proper education in college, they are more likely hoping that bodies mature and grow stronger.
College football is brutal, both body and mind. This is why Northwestern players are forming a union. It’s not like you can’t put a value on what they receive in return. If the players finish their degree, and play in the NFL, they could be set for life. Even if they don’t play professionally, they enter the work-force debt free. However, a little over half of men who begin playing college football ever graduate and the NCAA won’t even let the schools cover the full cost of education. When these men finish playing football, they are usually on the hook to cover years of medical expenses for injuries sustained in college. Even if they are insured, the copays for surgeries and time off work can add up.
During football season, many college teams require players to spend up to 50 or even 60 hours a week on football related activities. Add to that the burden of being a full-time student, spending an additional 12 hours a week in class and 24-36 hours studying. There are only 168 hours during any given week. That doesn’t leave a lot of time for sleep or for having fun and diversion at the Beta House. No wonder there are so many behavioral problems in the NFL. Suddenly, these players have free time, and they don’t know what to do with it.
One thing that people don’t realize is that college athletic scholarships are 1-year renewable -scholarships. If a player isn’t performing, he will get cut. If he is a super freshman who suffers a career-ending injury, then he loses is scholarship to someone who is healthy. For most of these young men, once they lose that scholarship, their college career is finished and there is no education. If it weren’t for football, there would be no motivation for a higher education and no means to pay for it. For many young men, playing football represents a way out of the ghetto.
How is an NFL development league better for the athlete? The reason why some young men wash out at the college level is academics, not athletics. Not everyone who washes out academically is bound to be a failure athletically. And sometimes the reason some boys fail is the demand of trying to do too much. They may succeed as athletes if there weren’t the stringent requirements that they succeed as a student.
It would be hoped, or assumed, that an NFL development league would work much like minor league baseball. In the minors, not only is there focus on learning the game of baseball and on honing skills, there is also mentoring by athletes who have been to the majors. This could be why baseball has fewer off-the-field behavioral problems than the other major sports.
Many people believe that if the NFL were to field a development league, that fewer schools would play football, after all isn’t the existence of minor leagues the reason why there are fewer colleges playing baseball? This may not be the case. The college baseball season runs from early February to May, which makes fielding a baseball team a difficult proposition for schools in northern or high-altitude climates. There are many college baseball team that play before large and enthusiastic crowds, and the College World Series sells out a major-league-sized stadium for several games every June.
It is true that in baseball, many of the best prospects choose to become professionals right out of high school. If the NFL had a real development league, the same would be true of football players. The 5-star recruits are likely to be drafted into the pros. But I suspect that college football will be as fun and competitive as always, in most cases.
There will be cities like Las Vegas and Memphis that may end up losing their college football team to the NFL development league. How many Vegans would miss the Running Rebels on the gridiron at this juncture anyway? But no NFL farm club would be able to replace the teams that occupy the stadiums in Lincoln, Nebraska or South Bend, Indiana. The NFL would be foolish to try and compete with the Cornhuskers or the Fighting Irish or the Crimson Tide.
There is one possibility to the NFL farm system. That is that some colleges frustrated with the NCAA may join the NFL farm league. Unionization certainly opens this possibility and the BYU Soccer Cougars opened the door for this to happen. It would also be a way to get around Title IX and certain other restrictions. However, I think that colleges hooking up with a NFL development league would be a poor idea. The college teams would be at a distinct disadvantage because their athletes are students.
In the long run, and NFL development league makes sense for college football as well. It would eliminate the student would is going to college just to play football in the NFL. The kids in your program really want to be there. It levels the playing field and has the potential to close the gap between the haves and have nots at the college level. It may reduce revenues at the college level and has the potential to also reduce expenses. Perhaps the bowl system will finally be replaced with a real playoff.
I, however, don’t live in the Fantasyland that says that college sports will be the same. It won’t be, especially if the best athletes become professionals right out of high school. But it has already changed, and it will continue to change. We can make it change for the better, and perhaps it’s time for the NFL to take charge and ensure College Football changes for the better.