Yet Another Modest Proposal

Earlier this week, the National Labor Relations Board rejected a petition by Northwestern football players asking the Board to assert the players’ right to unionize. That defeat does not entirely shut the door on college athletes getting paid for their efforts; there are still other avenues through which that cause might be legally pursued. But for now, the status quo has been vigorously reaffirmed.

Of course, there is another way that this unfair situation–people being asked to devote large portions of their lives to for profit entities without making any profit themselves–could be resolved. This other avenue of change could not only help these athletes get paid for their services, but could also bring other benefits to the athletes in question, other college students, and the colleges themselves. And, conceptually, it’s a very simple thing:

College sports as we know them today should be eliminated.

The DFR: Sports BusinessThe current set up, with lower level athletics being played under the banner of dozens–or even, in the case of basketball, hundreds–of colleges and universities, may seem like the natural order of things, but it’s not.

Throughout the world–especially Europe but in other areas as well–sports below the highest professional level are played in lower tier junior leagues. That is to say, in minor leagues. The idea that a young athlete with great talent must attend a university–which will have academic requirements and expectations that the athlete may not be qualified to meet, even if he has any interest in such things–is generally not considered outside the United States.

The affiliation of minor league sports and colleges is a choice, and it’s a choice that can be undone.

For instance, most European players who get drafted into the NBA each June have already been playing professional ball, either in their home counties or a neighboring land, in those lower tier leagues–in some cases, since they were sixteen or even fifteen years old. And that door swings both ways; lately, American basketball fans have seen highly recruited high school athletes head off to foreign lands instead of running through the farce of enrolling in a college for one year before beginning their professional careers. This year’s seventh pick, Emmanuel Mudiay, played a year in China before entering the draft and getting selected by the Denver Nuggets.

None of this should come as a revelation to American sports fans. Minor league baseball–that is, lower level professional leagues with teams affiliated with Major League teams–has been around for decades. It used to be that most MLB players came up solely through the minors; today a greater percentage come from college baseball programs, but a sizable percentage still begin their professional careers without the “benefit” of attending any college.

Hockey, too, has its minor leagues, perhaps most famously the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (a.k.a. the wonderfully initialed QMJHL). Though NCAA hockey has been around for a long time, plenty of NHL players come into the league directly from junior leagues, not from college teams. And, of course, many players from outside North America come in from minor leagues in their home nations.

So, with the notable exception of football, there’s plenty of history and infrastructure in place for our favorite sports to survive and thrive without getting their employees from college campuses. It’s no wonder that Northwestern football players were the ones to try to unionize; football players are the only young athletes without real options when it comes to pursuing their chosen vocation.

The big question is, why should this nation’s universities be serving as hosts for the professional sports industry’s minor leagues? Why shouldn’t the NFL–like MLB, and (to a lesser extent) the NBA and NHL, as well as top level leagues around the world–foot its own bill and get its players from professional minor leagues?

It’s a good question. It becomes an even better question when we consider that many of the universities that serve as minor league affiliates for the NFL are public schools. Their operations are funded through tax dollars; whenever a public school’s the football program–or perhaps even the athletic department as a whole–is losing money, that means the taxpayers are losing money–on a relatively unproductive program to boot. How exactly is that a justified expense in a time of tight, even austere, governmental budgets?

Of course, losing taxpayer money may be the least objectionable burden of college sports. Other negatives come from serving as an institutional host for minor league sports:

  • It perverts a college’s academic mission. An institution of higher learning is, first and foremost, supposed to be about higher learning. When all the emphasis falls on monster jams and pick-sixes, people inside and outside the school start to see that establishment as just another entertainment factory, like a Hollywood studio. But that’s not why colleges and universities are supposed to exist; they exist to foster academic achievement and expand humanity’s knowledge through rigorous research and intellectual seeking. MIT and the University of Chicago are somehow able to accomplish those goals without the benefit of a football team; why the hell can’t UCLA do that?
  • It brings non-academics into an academic setting. Some scholarship athletes take advantage of their enrollments to broaden their horizons and earn a degree in their preferred field of study. But many athletes recruited to play big-time college sports don’t, nor could they care less about the possibilities of getting a degree. The parade of “one and done” basketball players going through the NCAA’s revolving door testifies to athletes’ general lack of interest in pursuing an academic career. Why should we force these individuals to spend a year or more idling in a college when they should be allowed to get along their chosen path? A kid with dreams of rock ‘n’ roll stardom doesn’t need to attend a university; he needs to get a band together, write some songs, and hit the clubs. Why should an athlete be any different? If you really want to earn a degree, you can do that during or after your professional playing days–and, after having earned money playing your sport, you could even pay for your enrollment yourself.
    Lack of academic interest may very well be the best of this situation; putting non-students in among the rest of the college community can lead to some very bad outcomes. There’s a long history of schools bringing in athletes who shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a college campus–individuals with troubled pasts, histories of violence, in some cases even criminal records. Colleges are supposed to act in loco parentis for the barely-legal adults they welcome onto their campuses; inviting athletes with track records that would make the guys in Straight Outta Compton cringe onto those same campuses, to mix and mingle with the almost children of the general population, can be just asking for trouble.
  • It makes the schools beholden to unsavory characters. Those dicey recruits aren’t the only ones with a history of questionable behaviors. Coaches–especially successful coaches–have also been known to act in ways that don’t exactly jibe with an academic mission. Sometimes the bad behavior is relatively benign, like the ruthless antics of John Calipari. Sometimes it’s the athletes themselves who are victimized by a guy who shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a college campus. And occasionally you wind up with the weird situation where a sports coach becomes the highest paid employee of a state. Not of the university where he coaches–of the entire state, including its governor and all other officers. And he will probably consider that all right and good. How in the hell does that situation make sense?

Those are just a few examples of the problems with college sports–and I never even mentioned cheating–both academic and sports administration cheating. Programs that, on top of all other problems, create and encourage a culture of corruption are not living up to a school’s educational mission, and are probably damaging society as a whole.

There are just too many ways in which college sports either don’t make sense or are actively destructive in their impact on the schools, the student body, and society in general. The best solution would be to just get rid of the damn things; college sports should be uncoupled from institutions of higher learning.

Nothing about this set up is natural and ordained. The affiliation of minor league sports and colleges is a choice, and it’s a choice that can be undone. Next week, in part two of this feature, I will offer a suggestion for how the choice can be undone–without completely eliminating this problematic but immensely popular subset of the sports entertainment industry.


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