by Keith Aksel
Like Alex last week, I also had difficulty deciding on a single “worst” thing to happen to football as a whole. I considered the 24/7 news cycle that makes mountains out of player tweets and molehills every day. I also considered the 1987 NFL players strike, the absurd 2011 LSU-Alabama BCS title game rematch, and the wide expansion of NCAA powers during the twentieth century. Instead, to my mind the worst thing to ever happen to football was something that didn’t actually occur- a consistent commitment to a semi-pro or minor league to serve as an alternative stepping stone to the NFL.
While basketball and baseball players have other career options besides attending college on their way to the big leagues (the NBA G League and minor league farm systems, respectively), football players who desire to compete professionally have really no options beyond college ball. College becomes a necessary part of nearly any prospective football player’s career path, regardless if they care about higher education. This reality has brought about all sorts of challenges, and the controversy over those challenges has mostly to do with the concept of amateurism. These debates are over a century old and counting.
The tension between amateurism and professional status emerged almost as soon as football gained traction with the public in the late 1800s. From what once resembled backyard pickup games, college football became the center of lots of controversy as the sport evolved from its ramshackle beginnings into something that was deeply competitive. To stay competitive, teams would bend assumed rules; out came accusations that ringer athletes were being paid to join a team’s roster for single outings, or that some players were just traveling guns for hire, and not actual college students at all. When regulatory bodies emerged like the NCAA in the first decades of the twentieth century, rules were created to uphold the integrity of the amateur ideal- demanding that athletes actually be real students and not paid ringers, while standardizing the rules of the game. Yet, the problem of paying players never went away.
Of course, the rise of the popularity of pro football in the 1920s brought new challenges. The newly formed NFL attempted to deal with issues of college amateurs simultaneously being paid to play in the new pro league by passing rules keeping students who had not graduated from college off of pro rosters. That said, the connection between the pro ranks and colleges became assumed; colleges were the clear feeder system to the pros, a dynamic that continues to strengthen to this day.
Even in the past three or four decades, the amateurism issue has had its share of high profile cases. In the 1980s, halfback Marcus Dupree of Oklahoma desired to leave college and play pro football earlier than the NFL’s barrier to entry date. He instead was drafted into the USFL (which had less restrictive rules regarding player ages), but the league summarily folded before his career could get on track. Maurice Clarrett of Ohio State in 2003 brought up the same questions about barriers to pro football when he wanted to leave college before the NFL’s draft window opened for him. His effort to be allowed to leave for the draft early left an important three-year-rule in its wake, one that preserves the college-NFL feeder system long term. Court cases in the past decade have brought new attention to issues regarding amateurism. The National Labor Relations Board decided in a 2015 decision that Northwestern student-athletes could not unionize according to federal organized labor rules, since unpaid football players could not be categorized as “workers.”
All of this goes back to the lack of options presented to football players who desire to reach the pros in their careers. Those who play football may enrich the colleges they play for through their on-field success, but are prohibited from seeing a direct financial reward as college players. This is a problem that would fade from view if all players had a clear path to an alternative minor league system instead, where they could profit on their way to the NFL. Instead, young football players have a zero-sum option; either play college or don’t play at all.
But, the lack of an alternative feeder system hasn’t come from a lack of trying. Over the years, we’ve seen multiple such leagues come and go; the USFL, Vince McMahon’s XFL, and NFL Europe, all could have served as paid alternatives to amateur college football. Unlike MLB and NBA minor leagues, every one of these alternative football leagues lacked either fan interest and/or full commitment from the NFL. And so, they folded one by one, usually without any pushback from the general public. As a result, the century-old debate rages on episodically, waiting for the next Dupree-like incident to erupt and label the college-NFL marriage a corrupt and exploitative endeavor.
The reason the lack of a minor league is the worst thing to ever happen to football is that it is a distraction with staying power like none other. The century long back-and-forth on amateurism in football continues to grab headlines like it is something new, and these concerns have effectively nothing to do with who wins and loses football games on the field. The gridiron then becomes a sideshow to the controversy, as people line up on their sides of the ideological line separating reformers and everyone else. Furthermore, the solutions discussed today would only produce new problems (a reformer’s worst nightmare). Paying college players outright will only lead to more discussions regarding appropriate amounts, a moving target if there ever was one. Threats to unionize as we’ve seen recently, will cause absurd potentialities like unpaid college player strikes that will lead to people caring less about the sport, as strikes always do. Fans need to know that no reform that attempts to address the compensation side of the argument will satisfy even in the short term.
The minor-league idea has its own hurdles to success, to be sure. The NFL’s building of a new minor league from scratch would be a huge undertaking involving new sponsors and franchises. Also, the NFL is not likely to foot a bill for a new league without pressure since the college ranks do it for them for free. Colleges won’t abandon their feeder relationship with the league because it ensures a better-quality college game that would lose competitiveness if masses of players chose to pursue the minors instead of college. Even with a minor league, we’ll still see individual players flame out. Those flameouts, though, will not have an “exploitative” college system to blame, but rather their own personal choices.
Today, no baseball fan gets bent out of shape about abuse or exploitation of baseball players. With the career options afforded to players, baseball fans and media can actually pay focused attention to the diamond without getting distracted by debates over amateurism. With concerted effort, I hope to one day see a similar calm come over football. Like the development of the College Football Playoff, big changes in sports often seem to be out of reach. That is, until people start pounding the table for changes that actually address a cause of the problem rather than a symptom.