Over the next two posts I want to take a hard look at one of the most prevalent issues in sports: how to deal with college athletes. Specifically, I wan to talk about two issues that go hand-in-hand, and they are should college be a requirement for pro athletes? And if so, should they be compensated with more than just scholarships. Today, I am going to focus on the former.
Please note, for the purpose of these next two posts I am really only going to be talking about the four major professional sports: football, basketball, baseball, and hockey. I know that there are many more sports at the collegiate level but these are the only four with notable professional leagues (at least in America). These are the sports where athletes have the most to (potentially) lose by being forced to play college sports. Also, just to be clear, I am only going to talk about the men’s side of each sport because, at least right now, there aren’t any professional women’s leagues in these sports that are comparable to the men’s in popularity or value (not taking a stance here, this is a completely separate issue). To catch everyone up to speed here are the current rules for league eligibility for the NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB and their effects:
National Football League: The NFL’s current rule requires at least three years of college football, with a few other options that generally require more than three years. There are a few other routes that don’t involve college but college teams provide valuable player development so nearly all NFL players come from some college team.
National Basketball League: No player may sign with an NBA team unless he has been eligible for at least one draft. To be draft eligible a player must be 19 years old and at least one year out of high school. For this reason many players play college basketball to improve their value but often leave without a degree.
National Hockey League: The NHL has no college requirements. Their rules stipulate that any 18-20 year old (or first-year European player) must enter the NHL draft, and all other players may enter the league as free agents. About 31% on all NHL players played college hockey.
Major League Baseball: The MLB rules for college do give players the option to enter the draft straight out of high school; however, if they do go to college they must play for at least three years. About 4.3% of baseball players have college degrees.
So as you can see, the NFL and NBA are the only leagues with a rigid college requirement. So, why is this? In short, it sort of developed this way. Baseball became popular long before college sports became the gateway to professional sports. And college hockey only became popular relatively recently. College football and basketball, however, became popular in tandem with their professional counterparts. They are also by far the most lucrative sports for universities, and they could stand to lose value if the best players never went to college. It was only when questions to the status quo came about that the NFL and NBA cemented their college requirements.
The arguments for keeping these rules in place are twofold: (1) they allow for the players to develop and (2) it forces them to get the highly coveted college education. Now, while the NFL has a legitimate argument for the issue of development (football requires a higher amount of learned skills and smarts compared to the other sports), the issue could be resolved by the inclusion of a farm system. The NHL and MLB have efficient farm systems that allow them to develop players while still paying them. The NFL and NBA, however, do not. In terms of the college education argument, I’ll get to that more next post, but essentially if a player doesn’t want the education they’re being forced to receive, it’s not all that valuable.
The arguments against keeping the rules in place seem to heavily outweigh those for keeping them. It comes down to a matter of freedom to choose and working rights. While baseball and hockey players can begin making money right out of high school, football and basketball players are forced into colleges where they play for free (again, see next post for more on this), and risk injuries that could ruin their careers. An analogy that is often made is no one forced Taylor Swift to go to college for vocal performance before she pursued a professional career. In fact, that sounds a bit ridiculous, but I would argue that how are athletes any different? The rules that are currently in place only serve to hurt them.
I must admit that I am a big football fan, and I would hate to see any decline in the competitiveness of Penn State football. Yet, I find it hard to argue for the continued forcing of athletes to go to college. I would argue that baseball has the best system currently in place. It allows players to enter out of high school, and if they don’t like their offers they can turn them down to go to college and seek to reenter the league a few years later. Stay tuned for next week when I’ll examine the ever-pressing issue of college athletes and the NCAA’s student-athlete model.