Watching Sports Center this morning while at the gym, I enjoyed the highlights of Saturday's college football games. There were some major upsets and some tight contests, but all of it was good entertainment. (For the moment, I even forgot about the concussions the players were likely experiencing.) Then I thought about the latest scandal in college sports, the story in Sports Illustrated about sports agent Josh Luchs who paid college athletes in order to get them to sign with him. Of course, this came as no surprise to anyone who follows big time college sports. My next thought was to write still another blog about the hypocrisy of amateur college athletics and the futile efforts of the NCAA to protect its brand.
Instead of bemoaning the fate of the college game, however, consider this alternative idea: a free market answer to the restricted market that is forced upon college football players who aspire to play professional football. Think about a Junior NFL funded by some wealthy entrepreneurs, who want to "get into the game." The Junior NFL would provide good, market-driven salaries and first-rate coaching to college-age football players. The new league would play each fall in competition with college games around the country.
The business plan requires that we consider the availability of talent and the probability of profits. There is an abundance of talented college football players, some of whom find the only option they have available -- NCAA football -- to be burdened with an academic component that is, frankly, unnecessary and totally unrelated to their talents and their aspirations to play NFL football. The college option limits their remuneration to tuition, room, board and books, things they may not particularly want and, in many cases, do not need. These young men could chose instead to play in the Junior NFL until the real NFL allows them to stand for the draft.
There is nothing in the NFL rules that requires those eligible for the draft to attend college. They are eligible for the draft when they are three or four years out of high school. They could spend those years making some money and learning football, instead of being a student. As a lifelong academic, it is hard for me to advise young men to avoid college, but today a college education can easily come later in life after these men have explored their sports options.
Would the Junior NFL find an audience? Assume for the moment that 10% or 20% of the very best high school and college players in the country would want to pursue this option. Is there any reason why games between teams of players of this caliber would not attract the public's interest? The media would lead the way. These are not CFL players or Arena Football players of somewhat lesser quality. These are NFL players-to-be.
Would a television network televise this new league? There are so many cable outlets that someone would pick up this league and advertisers would line up as well. With adequate capital to hire quality coaches and create the necessary infrastructure, the Junior NFL could flourish. When the time came, the best players would be drafted by the NFL and more junior ballplayers would take their places.
How would all of this affect the colleges, our football factories? They would still recruit most of the star high school athletes who want to play for Notre Dame, et al., but some who do not meet the NCAA academic eligibility requirements or who would just want to play the game in preparation for their sports careers, might select this option. They would miss out on the college experience, but there will be compensation in exchange.
My guess is that college boosters would frown upon the idea, but the market would determine whether it would be a viable alternative. The college game works because of the level playing field, and losing out on a few young stars would not diminish the competition. If enough of the very best young players tried out for the Junior NFL, the college game might fall of its own weight, but that seems unlikely based on the frenzy of the crowds I saw at yesterday's games.
The NCAA would probably oppose the Junior NFL because it would set up a rival to its monopoly control. Every cartel in history eventually succumbed to a better idea, and the fans will decide how important it is to believe that the young men who play each Saturday are just students taking some time off from their studies to play a friendly game of football.