They’re Colleges, Not the Minor Leagues

If colleges follow Bill Bowen’s advice and “untie the knot” between athletics and big-time commercial entertainment, they will also be untying, or at least loosening, the knot that binds colleges to the NFL, the NBA, and the WNBA. Today colleges have a near-monopoly on American students’ access to those leagues, a fact we are reminded of every autumn Sunday, when NFL starters introduce themselves on TV by calling out their college connections (including, of course, THE Ohio State University).

That is truly odd. No one thinks you have to go to college to act in Hollywood or become a musician, but with rare exceptions, that is the deal for Americans in the entertainment worlds of basketball and football. This effective monopoly is not ironclad: The NBA, for example, includes many players from abroad, and occasionally an American will go play in Europe after high school and then come back into the league. But getting around the college-professional linkage is far from typical.

Major League Baseball operates quite differently. Young people can be and often are signed to professional contracts right out of high school. College is an option, not a mandate, for baseball players. The Red Sox and the Yankees are probably typical:  50 percent to 60 percent of their players spent time in college. Probably several factors contribute to this contrast among professional sports, including the obvious fact that baseball’s minor leagues were established long before relations between colleges and pro sports were codified.

From their positions as entertainment businesses, colleges and the professional leagues benefit greatly from sustaining the tight linkages they have in basketball and football. The colleges gain temporary access to the best players coming out of high school. Moreover, as long as the premise holds that these young men and women are students, not employees, colleges don’t have to pay even the most promising of these athletes the amounts of money that begin to approach their economic value.

The pro teams are saved the trouble and expense of investing much more heavily than they do now in developmental leagues that get high-school athletes ready for professional play. Perhaps most important, the professional leagues get at least a year or two to watch players develop before they have to make big monetary bets on the athletes’ prospects. During those years, bright stars may fade, late bloomers may blossom—and, of course, the pros can avoid putting down millions of dollars on a player who blows out his knee in his freshman year.

Essential to sustaining this arrangement, however, is the presumption that almost every potential superstar coming out of high school can be gotten into some college and be kept eligible to play. The compromises that colleges make in maintaining that presumption are one major source of the embarrassment and periodic scandals they face—as is the fiction that “one and done” exists to provide players a year of college, and not a year of being scouted for the pros.

If the major college sports powers decide to admit athletes in more or less the way they admit other students—that is, on the basis of their interest in and aptitude for academic work—then, even with some allowance for athletics achievements, some significant share of exceptionally talented U.S. athletes won’t be enrolling in college. What happens then?

One plausible scenario is that, as in baseball, avenues will emerge by which major-league prospects can begin their professional careers right out of high school. In men’s basketball, we have some history to go on. Beginning in 1995, players could be drafted to the NBA straight out of high school, and extraordinary athletes like Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James showed the ability to play at a high level right away. In 2005, the players union and the league agreed to forbid any player from being drafted until a full NBA season had passed since his high-school graduation. (Hence one-and-done.) Of course, players like Garnett and Bryant are exceptions, and most players coming out of high school, particularly football players, need more training and physical development before moving to the big leagues.

If the leading colleges in the big-time athletics business really do move to untie the knot between academic and commercial interests, it seems apparent that they cannot at the same time serve as the exclusive pathways for Americans into professional football and basketball. And why, after all, should they? While most of us think that college is a good choice for most young people, there are few calls for compelling young adults to attend. You do need to go to college if you want to be, say, a teacher or a registered nurse. But there is nothing about the work of most professional athletes that requires college-level academic skills. A good many top high-school athletes may find the college route appealing, as they do in baseball, but many do not.

Moving in this direction would, it is true, disrupt the economics of both college and professional sports. More money from the pro leagues would have to go into developing young players, and they would have to be paid for their work at wages that come closer to reflecting their economic value. And, while colleges would continue under these arrangements to have many excellent players (who would come closer to approximating the ideal of the student-athlete), the movement of some superstar athletes directly to the professional level would very likely make the economics of March Madness look more like the economics of the College World Series than it does now. But then, as the NCAA never ceases to remind us, this isn’t all about money. Or is it?

Michael McPherson is president of the Spencer Foundation.

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