Why do you have to play college football to get drafted into the NFL?

Why is that young athletes in America must play amateur sports for schools in order to become professional athletes? 

Should NCAA academic eligibility determine whether an athlete qualifies to play for a team in the only amateur sport program that develops professional basketball and football players?

I've been asking myself these types of questions for a few years now. Michael Lewis has touched on the apparent contradictions in the NCAA system in bunch of his work over the last few years, most pointedly in "Serfs of the Turf" - http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/11/opinion/11lewis.html .  I think the United States is the only country on earth that in which an amateur athlete's career development is completely dependent on educational institutions.

Pele played soccer professionally at the age of 15. Wayne Gretzky dropped out of high school when he was 17 years old to play in the WHA.  Neither of them had to play for a school, and neither of them had to meet academic standards in order to qualify to play their sports.  I'm guessing Walter Gretzky might have taken away Wayne's skates for few days if he came home with bad grades on his report card... but no organization or school told Wayne what his minimum GPA had to be if he wanted to make it to the NHL. 

Today, soccer players in Europe, Africa and South America sign professional contracts  as young as 16 years of age.  They don't have attend college classes and play for a college teams in order to become a professional athletes.  In fact schools, and academics have absolutely nothing to do with the how these young athletes pursue their amateur/professional soccer careers. 

Top youth hockey players in Canada are drafted to play in 'Major Junior Hockey' leagues at 16 years of age and play as amateurs until they are 19.  Junior hockey teams have owners, these owners run the teams to make money. Its not a big money business, so you only get involved if you love hockey.  The players aren't paid salaries but they receive world class coaching and get paid enough  for room & board and 4 years worth of college tuition (assuming they want to attend school, if they choose to simply play hockey that's ok too).

The MLB farm systems exist as a functional alternative to NCAA for baseball players.  They can become a pro baseball player without attending school.  But football and basketball players must attend a college to progress their athletic careers.  The choice is go to college or end your athletic career.  The NCAA seemingly has exclusive control of amateur player development for these sports.

On the surface the idea of college scholarships for athletes sounds like a good one. Athletes are provided with the opportunity to earn a college degree that will benefit them in their lives regardless of the outcome of the athletic career.  But its seems like the system is now corrupted.

Athletes attending colleges with 'big time' athletic programs and are enrolled in specific courses that require minimal effort  (think basket weaving 101).  These same colleges employ an army of tutors for their athletes.  One might think the tutor's job is to actually help the student to 'learn' but that's not really what goal.  The real goal of tutorsis to maintain an athlete's academic eligibility, the focus is GPA not actual learning.  This is not to say that the athletes are all stupid, the strategy of easy courses and comprehensive tutoring  just helps to minimize the impact of 'academic distraction' on athletic performance.  Is there any value in a scholarship if the student lacks the time, interest or aptitude to actually study?

A complex, web of boosters, recruiters,  and coaches conspire to subvert NCAA recruiting rules using gifts, bribes and influence to get athletes to attend their school (in comparison Junior Hockey leagues in Canada use a draft to assign players to team avoiding corruption in the recruiting process).  High school teachers are pressured into providing generous grades to help the athlete's qualify for college.  And then we wonder why a disproportionate number of young NCAA athletes seem to struggle to stay out of legal trouble or seem to be lacking moral character. Could it be in part the influence of the adult role models that surround athletes in the pseudo-academic world of the NCAA? These role models seem very comfortable helping athletes cheat NCAA system's own academic, recruitment  and compensation rules.

Is there a better way to develop athletes? Do we need to continue to pretend that all these athletes are also students? 

  • 17 year old basket prodigy Jeremy Tyler has decided skip his final year of high school and play professionally for club team in Europe. That's an interesting development, although he's taking career guidance from Sonny Vaccaro, a shifty behind the scenes power broker in the world of youth basketball recruiting .
  • Jozy Altidore signed a pro soccer contract with the NY Red Bulls at 16 years old and moved Villareal in Spain's La Liga at 18 years old. Major League Soccer Teams are setting up 'Youth Academies' to develop young soccer players on their own. Its interesting that MLS has found money to fund player development but the NFL and NBA don't seem to have any cash available for this activity

I'm betting that the NBA and NFL tolerate the arcane NCAA system because its cheaper and lower risk for them to let the NCAA schools develop young athletes for them.  They save on having to pay salaries to young prospects and they don't have to fund infrastructure for their own development systems.  Its great deal, the NCAA does a nice work and its free of charge.  Players  are developed and the lesser talent is culled before the pro leagues ever need to pay a salary.  But in long run will this hurt the product they put on the court or field.  In the NBA, young American players coming out of NCAA schools seem to lack some skill development compared to the kids coming out of European clubs  (passing, shooting  etc). 

I'm also willing to bet that the upstart MLS is not simply being charitable with its decision to invest in youth player development.  The global market for soccer players is lucrative. Players rights are owned by clubs and their rights are sold for huge sums of money, so developing youth soccer players is actually a viable side business for the MLS (a nice bi-product  like wood chips or mulch  for a lumber mill).  So the MLS is getting serious about player development because:

1. The market opportunity to sell players internationally provides motivation

2. NCAA system isn't very good a developing top quality soccer players

3. Within the global market for soccer players, an 18 year old American prospect who is already competing against professionals and who possesses as yet unrealized potential, is actually more valuable in the eyes of European clubs, then a 22-25 year old American player who has played in the NCAA for 3-4 years and the MLS for 1-2 years and is perceived to be developmentally behind players of same age from Europe.

In looking at Pele and Wayne Gretzky, would you say that their post athletic lives have been negatively impacted by their lack of college education.  Both men became famous as teenage sports prodigies.  As teenagers they probably weren't well rounded individuals.  It takes a lot of time and focus to be an athletic prodigy.  But look at them now, they are probably two of the greatest ambassadors for sport the world has ever known.  Articulate, thoughtful, humble and gracious, they are true gentlemen.  I'm wondering if either of them would have turned out differently, if they had spent a couple of their early adult years  scheming and scamming their way through NCAA rules so they could attend college in order to continue to play the sports they loved.