The Professional Failings for the Amateur Athlete

D.J. Byrnes's picture
April 25, 2013 at 3:57p

As a fan of the Almighty Cleveland Browns, the NFL Draft is akin to Christmas Day. Usually, the Browns are taking a Top 10 talent before the Browns chronic ineptitude ruins them by the end of their rookie contract. Other times, we’re spending first round picks on 28 year-old rookie quarterbacks. Yet, every year, like the kids of deadbeat parents, us Browns fans awake on draft day with a naïve twinkle of hope in our eyes.

This, however, isn’t about the Browns’ struggles since their valiant return to the league in 1999. I doubt ElevenWarriors has the bandwidth to host such a diatribe, nor would this ever be mistaken for a Cleveland Browns blog; there’s way too much optimism here and not nearly enough self-loathing.

Yet, the NFL Draft, led by autocrat Roger Goodell, offers another chance to shame the league about something not involving concussions and the long-term mental health of its players: its lack of a minor league.

My three readers know there is no love lost between the NCAA and me. In fact, when reports surfaced on Twitter of a possible college football bowl in Dubai, my first thought was “These two institutions built on the back of the indentured servitude deserve each other.” 

The NCAA is in dire need of reform, something which I believe will finally happen once the O’Bannon verdict is delivered this summer. This is all well and good, and should be welcomed by anybody who believes in fairness. But any rant against the NCAA, and believe me, my pasty digits have typed plenty of them, usually falls short of naming another culprit with even more blood on its hands: “the National Football League” (said in my ESPN Analyst Serious Business Voice).

I can see how the NCAA spiraled out of control. When the NCAA was ordained in 1910, it’s not as if its Earthshakers envisioned multi-billion dollars in television contracts being handed out annually. I have less sympathy for the NFL, whose owners compromise some of the most ruthless business people in the world. (Doubt me? Browns owner and billionaire Jimmy Haslam’s Flying Pilot J, a Fortune 11 company with 17.77 billion dollars in revenue in 2011, was just caught chiseling a few million dollars off trucking companies in a cost-plussing rebate scheme.)

I have zero clue how the NFL has gotten this far without a minor league system, but if I listen closely enough at night, I can almost hear NFL owners clinking Scotch-filled glasses together as they chuckle at their ability to weld their minor league system to the NCAA. How many miles on their private jets has this bought them? I shudder to think.

If I were Mark Emmert, I would make my appeal thusly: the NCAA was never meant to be a minor league system for the NFL and NBA’s talent. Perhaps Emmert is holding this card up his sleeve for a rainy day, because I doubt NCAA football would be as lucrative if the Terrelle Pryors and Greg Odens were replaced with Joe Bausermans and Evan Ravenels, but it’s something that makes sense.

Elite football prospects have two options after graduating high school: go to college or take three years off from playing competitively, and given not too many NFL draftees are hailing from their mother’s basement, the system has been rigged to funnel elite prospects into the collegiate ranks. This is where the NFL wants them: where NFL teams aren’t spending money on the development of talent in their de-facto minor league system.

This use to not be the case for the NBA, but after years of NBA general managers failing at evaluating talent (aka their jobs), the NBA raised the age requirement to enter its draft. This has led to the “one-and-done” phenomenon; something Mark Emmert himself has said makes a mockery of his fabled white unicorn, the student-athlete.

Could a professional minor league co-exist with the NCAA? Looking at college baseball, there’s no reason to see why not. In that sport, prospects have the option: sign a minor league contract or go to college for at least three years. That’s why you never see the glut of “WE MUST PAY THESE ATHLETES” rants about college baseball like you do about football and basketball athletes... because choice exists in baseball.

I get that an 18 year-old basketball prospect could forgo the collegiate system and head overseas to play professionally, a la Brandon Jennings or Jeremy Tyler, but how many 18 year-olds are ready for that kind of independence? How many prospects have the kind of support network to help them through the inevitable culture shock?

Choice is the crux of American society, is it not? While the NFL has grown into becoming the most moneyed league in the Americas, it has left prospects bereft of a viable alternative to the NCAA and its colleges. The same is true with the NBA, only to a lesser extent.

If every prospect was ready fit for college or came from a family of privilege, perhaps this wouldn’t be the case, but one only needs to skim the backgrounds of this year’s draftees to the reality of the situation.

A sky-scraping pile of criticism has been heaped at the foot of the NCAA’s throne; most of it is fair, yet perhaps it’s not as big as culprit as people have been led to think. If the NCAA wants to avoid paying its players, and by every indication it does, then perhaps it should pass the buck upward.

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