Published April 30, 2012 - 12:33pm
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The NFL Draft is about marketing, not “competitive balance” or player development. The Draft allows poorly managed clubs to put a good spin on their immediate future—without necessarily having to address their poor management—while building on the pre-existing buzz generated by incoming players during their college careers. The Draft also reinforces the essential link between the college and NFL games.
Consider that the NFL is the one major North American professional sports league that would whither and die without its exclusive source of talent, the (mostly) government-funded universities. Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League have extensive minor league systems that can develop talent directly out of high school. The National Basketball Association still draws the majority of its talent from colleges, but many top basketball programs are private universities, and even if college basketball went away, there would still be the American Athletic Union’s network, not to mention international sources. Baseball and hockeys also have international talent pools to draw upon. The NFL has nothing outside the United States.
While we tend to think of the NFL as the dominant sports business, the colleges have always driven American football. The game was invented at the college level in the 19th century. The NFL did not attain true legitimacy until roughly the mid-1950s. When the NFL took its two major steps into adulthood—adopting a national television contract and merging with the upstart American Football League—it needed special permission from Congress to get around federal antitrust restrictions. In both cases, Congress granted permission with a key stipulation that the NFL keep its games off Fridays and Saturdays, lest they compete directly against college football. Those restrictions remain in place today.
This also helps explain why the NFL Draft has protectionist eligibility rules that recognize college football’s political importance. Under the collective bargaining agreement between the NFL Management Council and the NFL Players Association, no player can enter the Draft “until three NFL regular seasons have begun and ended following either his graduation from high school or graduation of the class with which he entered high school, whichever is earlier.” Thus, any player drafted this year must have graduated high school no later than the spring of 2009.
The collective bargaining agreement actually overrides the Draft provisions of the NFL Constitution, which provide an even stricter standard—no player can enter the Draft unless “all college football eligibility has expired,” five years have elapsed since he entered college, or he’s graduated college “prior to September 1st of the next football season of the League.” If enforced, this rule would effectively require all players to attend and finish college, although it’s worth noting that absent the superseding provisions of the collective bargaining agreement, the Draft itself would likely be held an illegal “restraint of trade” under federal antitrust statutes.
“And a Carnival Barker Shall Lead Them…”
Supposedly, the NFL has a “free” farm system in college football. In reality, it has a taxpayer-subsidized monopoly provider of talent that is often under-prepared for life in the NFL. In this sense, the NFL is just like every other employer that relies on the credential-driven “higher education” system.
Remember, college football, in its present form, exists primarily to market the universities, just as the Draft exists to market the NFL. Think of all college football spending as an advertising expense. There’s no better way to get your school’s name in front of future students (and parents) than by having a winning football program on national television every week. There’s also no better way to secure ongoing donations from alumni.
The funny thing is, college football (and basketball) also reinforces another key pillar of collegiate marketing—the notion that college is necessary to secure a good job. The NFL Draft is the best-known “job fair” in the country. It’s three days of smiling kids just out of school, in some cases after just three years, getting hired for their first full-time jobs. Sure, in many cases those jobs will disappear even before the next NFL season begins, but the imagery here is what’s important.
At least drafted players who never appear in a regular-season NFL game are unlikely to carry any student loan debt thanks to athletic scholarships. Yet there’s always some degree of media hand-wringing whenever a player “leaves” school after three years to go to the NFL. This is even more acute in basketball, where the NBA allows players to enter the draft just a year after graduating high school. When all five starters on Kentucky’s national championship team—a group of freshmen and sophomores—recently announced they would declare for the NBA Draft, ESPN writer Dana O’Neil lamented, “I believe college is a privilege, not a layover.”
Except that college is no longer a privilege, but a government-funded entitlement. Just about anyone can get into some state school or community college regardless of academic qualifications. College is middle-class welfare.
And contra O’Neil, college is frequently a “layover,” and an expensive one at that, as noted by author James Altucher in his recent e-book, 40 Alternatives to College:
If you spent 5 years spending on average 50k a year then your true cost is not $ 50k. It’s $ 50k + what you would have made if you did not go to college. Let’s say you could’ve made $ 20k. Then your true cost of college is $ 70k a year. But let’s dive into this a bit further. The average tuition cost is approximately $ 16,000 per year. Plus assume another $ 10,000 in living costs, books, etc. $ 26,000 in total for a complete cost of $ 130,000 in a 5 year period (remember, across the country the average amount of years spent in college is five years). [...]
If I took that $ 130,000 and I chose to invest it in a savings account that had interest income of 5% per year I’d end up with an extra $ 1.4 million dollars over a 50 year period. A full $ 600,000 more. That $ 600,000 is a lot of extra money an 18 year old could look forward to in her retirement. I also think the $ 800,000 quoted above is too high. Right now most motivated kids who have the interest and resources to go to college think it’s the only way to go if they want a good job. If those same kids decided to not go to college my guess is they would quickly close the gap on that $ 800,000 spread.
And remember, for most students, that $130,000 per year will be financed by student loan debt. Comparatively, a football player who leaves college after three years on scholarship and signs as an undrafted rookie free agent for the NFL minimum salary will earn $390,000 in 2012.
This brings up another point. Despite the societal belief in college-as-job-training, very little of what is taught in college has real-world applicability. The time a student spends in business classes would, in most cases, be better spent actually starting a business. College football is one of the few areas where students are likely to receive any useful training for future employment. Pre-med students don’t really learn how to be doctors, but an offensive tackle learns the basics of his position.
Thanks to government-subsidized loans which provide the bulk of their revenues, most colleges aren’t responsive to the practical needs of their students. We often hear griping about escalating coaching salaries. But consider the typical liberal arts faculty member. No, she’s not earning Nick Saban’s annual salary. But she has tenure, which means she can’t be fired absent extreme cause, and there’s no pressure on her to perform in the classroom. The tenure system tends to reward research, not teaching, and certainly not helping students find gainful employment (outside of academia, anyways).
Contrast this with Kentucky basketball’s John Calipari, whom ESPN’s O’Neil compared to famous carnival barker P.T. Barnum. Calipari may in fact be the most successful “educator” in the history of the University of Kentucky. He recruited five students who, with less than two years of training, are poised to be multi-millionaires. Or to stay with football, look at the 40-plus SEC players taken in last week’s NFL Draft, in addition to the dozens more signed as undrafted free agents. Few academic departments can claim that level of job-placement success.
It Always Comes Back to Amateurism
Years ago, there was a small Division I school sanctioned by the NCAA for playing an ineligible basketball player. He was a transfer student from a community college. The problem was he never obtained an associate’s degree from the community college, just a certificate in welding. NCAA rules don’t recognize non-liberal arts credentials—certainly not one in a industrial skill like welding—for purposes of transfer eligibility. Adding insult to injury, the ineligible student was a sociology major at the Division I school.
Not that I have anything against sociology, mind you. But at least welding is a marketable skill. And it’s curious that an organization that purports to be about students and education like the NCAA would discriminate against people who choose to study a practical vocation rather than classroom theory. Then again, the NCAA is ultimately a creature of the classroom theorists who dominate university administration.
The 19th century view of amateurism was based on the notion that elite college students should not compete against skilled manual laborers. Today, amateurism is part-and-parcel of a larger societal taboo against productive work by people in their teens and early 20s, as my friend, Laissez-Faire Books publisher Jeffrey Tucker, explained in a recent article on the negative effects of child labor laws:
If you are 14 or 15, you can ask your public school for a waiver and work a limited number of hours when school is not in session. And if you are in private school or home school, you must ask your local social service agency — not exactly the most-welcoming bunch. The public school itself is also permitted to run work programs.
This point about approved labor is an interesting one, if you think about it. The government doesn’t seem to mind so much if a kid spends all nonschool hours away from the home, family and church, but it forbids them from engaging in private-sector work during the time they would otherwise be in public schools drinking from the well of civic culture.
The punchline, Tucker noted, is that “[e]mployers will tell you that most kids coming out of college are radically unprepared for a regular job.” College football players may be one of the few exceptions, as they’ve been in a competitive environment, often since the ages of five or six, where there are actual expectations and consequences for not getting the job done.
Of course, the NCAA denies that athletes are “employees” of any kind and their non-productive academic studies are paramount. But this is a political lie of convenience. Actually, it’s no different than the NFL restricting draft eligibility. While the NFL preserves the myth that college is a necessary condition of future job success, the colleges preserve the myth that it’s immoral for young people to engage in any productive work without first obtaining certain arbitrary credentials.