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Why Do Football and Basketball Players Have to go to College?

Four years ago I talked with former Alabama wide receiver Tyrone Prothro about his post-college life.

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In a courtroom in Oakland, California, the NCAA is being sued by former college football and basketball players for antitrust violations. Regardless of the outcome in this case -- filed five years ago -- the NCAA and the plaintiff attorneys representing the former college athletes will appeal the court decisions all the way to the Supreme Court. The ultimate result could lead to a reconfiguration of amateurism, a decision on par with the 1984 Supreme Court case that ended the NCAA's ability to control and limit televised football games. 

Former Alabama football player Tyrone Prothro took the stand Wednesday and told the story of the leg injury that ended his football career. One moment Prothro was destined for a career in the NFL, the next he was finished playing football forever. Four years ago I wrote a story about Prothro, then working as a bank teller near Bryant-Denny Stadium, and the journey he'd undertaken since that fourth quarter injury against the Florida Gators. He spent his days in the bank cashing checks for Alabama fans. It was a sobering juxtaposition, one that brought home the risks that college athletes undertake to play the sport that makes their universities billions. Since that story Prothro has been my go-to example any time fans argue that college athletes shouldn't be paid because they'll eventually make money in pro sports. That's certainly not true in college football at all. Every snap could be a player's last.  

While the NCAA's presently on trial and the organization's definition of amateurism is a sham, a larger subject isn't on trial -- many of the top football and basketball players have issues with the NCAA not because of NCAA rules, but because of NFL and NBA eligibility rules. The NCAA doesn't force high school athletes to play college athletics in football and basketball, the professional sports leagues do. It's an important distinction that many fans and commentators miss.

The NFL won't allow players to be drafted until three years after their high school class graduates; college basketball forces players to wait a year after graduation until they're eligible for the draft. This means that for graduating high school football and basketball players there is no real option to pursue a professional career in America. College is, therefore, the default choice for players wishing to pursue a pro career in football and basketball. The result is that college football and basketball are de facto minor leagues for the NFL and the NBA, which have created eligibility rules that are designed to protect the value of their brands and ensure that both leagues retain a free minor league system. 

The NFL and the NBA age limitations are an odd construct, one that's antithetical to the capitalistic American marketplace. Even though the eligibility rules are cloaked under the protection of collective bargaining agreements, I believe these restrictions should be struck down by courts as antitrust violations. (You may recall that Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett challenged the NFL's eligibility rules as an antitrust violation after his sophomore year at Ohio State, winning at the district court level before a circuit court overturned the victory. The Supreme Court declined to hear the case, leaving the NFL's eligibility rules intact). In baseball, hockey, golf, tennis, or soccer an athlete can go pro at 18 or younger. In football and basketball that isn't an option because of league rules. If going pro were an option, it's unlikely that the football and basketball players would have sued the NCAA. And if they had sued with an option to go pro, it would be hard to make an antitrust case stick. So in a sense the NFL and NBA's eligibility rules have created a huge legal mess for the NCAA. Players who want to be professionals don't have viable options to do so, the result is colleges are running minor leagues in these sports and the players want to be paid. 

So how is that we came to have such disparate eligibility rules for sports? And why are football and basketball players treated differently than athletes in all other sports?  And, for that matter, why are they treated differently than entertainers as well? After all, we don't ask Taylor Swift to spend three years singing in the Vanderbilt chorus or demand that Leonardo DiCaprio toil for three years acting in collegiate stage productions for USC before either individual is allowed to cash in on their talents. Indeed, you can scour the American landscape and hardly find a single profession that adults aren't allowed to pursue to the fullest of their abilities at the age of 18. (Stop with the emails about doctors and lawyers. That's a specialty training in which individuals are expressly responsible for treating or representing others. And I could make you a pretty strong argument, by the way, that anyone who is able to pass a state bar exam should be able to be a lawyer whether they go to law school or not. Law school is, in my opinion, just a barrier to the legal profession designed to keep hourly rates artificially high. But that's another story.)

Sure, we trot out tried and true bromides about the "value of a college education," but isn't that just a backhanded justification for the existing system in football and basketball? College is great, but if you're not interested in an education, you're not going to get one. And even if you are interested, how many players are shuttled through classes that aren't valuable and guided into majors that don't have future value in order to ensure that they're eligible just long enough to play football or basketball? The graduation rates for these two sports are shameful. Many of these players are being forced to attend college and not receiving educations in the process. What they really want to do is pursue a professional sports career. Sure, some of these players won't end up successful pros, but that's a risk that everyone who pursues a competitive dream undertakes. We allow 18 year olds to fight in our overseas wars and travel to Hollywood to become the next big star, but we won't let 18 year olds try to make football or basketball teams? I'm not saying that every football and basketball player should go pro, far from it, but I am saying they should have the choice or whether or not to go pro.

Here's a stat that will blow your mind, do you know how many major league baseball players have college degrees? Just 39 players in the entire major leagues this season, that's 4.3%. When was the last time you heard someone talk about the need for major league baseball players to have their college degrees? I don't ever remember hearing it. Baseball players have a great system in place when it comes to monetizing their talents, at 18 years old they can enter the draft, be drafted, negotiate, and then if they don't like the offer they can go to college and be redrafted again several years later. It's the perfect model because it allows players to assess their value and then weigh a college or professional decision. Allowing football and baseball players to make the same decision would be ideal. It wouldn't kill football and basketball on college campuses either; instead it would ensure that those players who chose to go to college actually wanted to be there, that they valued the NCAA's student-athlete model. It would also allow those drafted players who chose to go pro to receive contractual guarantees that teams will pay for their college degrees if they decide to go back to school after failing to make the pros. Failing to make a pro sport might provide the best incentive of all to take college seriously. You know the real life stakes then, you get an education or you may be forced to take an inferior job.  

We spend a ton of time talking and writing about sports issues from a moral perspective, but isn't the most immoral act in sports requiring someone to perform valuable labor for free? If Marcus Lattimore was ready to be a first round pick after his freshman year of college -- and he was -- why should NFL rules require him to return to play for two more seasons, during which time he suffered two gruesome knee injuries? If Jadeveon Clowney would have been a top draft pick after his sophomore season, why should he return and play for another season of college football just to satisfy the league's eligibility rules? What purpose does that serve when every step these athletes take on the field is potentially the last one of their career? It's ludicrous, immoral, and anti-capitalistic to have age restrictions in football and basketball yet no one ever writes or talks about it.

So what's really going on here, how did we arrive at a place where football and basketball players are the only top athletes making scads of money for colleges while top athletes in other sports can skip the collegiate model entirely and go pro? Why is that 18 year olds in all these other sports are going pro -- and consequently not suing colleges for anti-trust violations -- while football and basketball players are hamstrung by league eligibility rules? I think it has a great deal to do with political power, socioeconomics, and, yes, race.

By and large the American kids of all races turning pro in baseball, hockey, golf or soccer are from higher socioeconomic classes than those playing football or basketball. As a result those players are more likely to have advocates, both now and in the past, working to ensure that they're able to unlock the value of their talents as soon as they reach 18 years old. The majority of the American athletes in all of these sports also happen to be white. Meanwhile, the substantial majority of the football and basketball players with professional potential being forced into college are from lower socioeconomic classes and the majority of the football and basketball players on campus with pro potential are black. (According to recent league stats 78% of NBA players are black and 68% of NFL players are black. On the other hand, just over 8% of MLB players and 3% of NHL players, for instance, are black).

Overt racism is comparatively rare in our society today, but structural racism still exists. That is, systems that were put in place decades ago continue to have a substantial racial impact in the present day whether intended or not. When you get right down to it, why are Ed O'Bannon and Tyrone Prothro and many others suing to get paid for college athletics, when they should have had the option to go pro when they saw fit? Because the NFL and the NBA are using a free minor league to increase their profits while limiting their risk. From a business perspective it makes complete sense, but from a moral one, it's not justifiable.

The NCAA's on trial, but the NFL and the NBA's age restrictions are the real defendants.  

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