College Athletes Part 1: Should College be Required?

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.

A wall with each MLB at the top, and their affiliated farm teams below.

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.



A Stadium Too Far

We all inherently associate a sports team with the city they play in. They tend to move beyond their basic status as a source of entertainment into a role that significantly impacts their city. In essence, they come to define a city. For me, the image to the right is equally, if not more, recognizable than the actual Philadelphia

Sports Complex in South Philadelphia

sky-line. Those four monuments to Philadelphia sports represent a huge part of my identity and where I’m from. However, and as a sports fan it pains me to say this, all of this noise and glamour is really a distraction that masks the fact that sports franchises, in reality, are businesses. And what does every business need? A headquarters. A stadium.

The Problem

Professional stadiums, which are increasingly becoming more and more elaborate and luxurious, cost a lot of money. Additionally, every so often, teams need or choose to build new stadiums for many various reasons. The problem arises because professional teams of the four major American sports (Football, Baseball, Basketball, Hockey) are in rather unique positions as businesses. Their intimate relationships with their cities and their fans, as well as their supposed contributions to their local economies (which we’ll talk about later), allow them to extort a rather large degree of influence over the cities. And many of them use this influence to acquire public funds, taxpayer dollars, in order to fund their new stadiums. To my knowledge (and the knowledge of many journalists who have written on this subject), no other business in America has been able to successfully lobby local governments for funds to build or maintain their headquarters. This is a problem.

Analyzing the Issue

A Huffington Post graphic of taxpayer contributions to NFL stadiums from 2013.

From here on out I am going to focus specifically on NFL stadiums because they generally cost the most money and they tend to acquire the most public subsidies. From 2000-2015, nearly $12 billion in taxpayer money was spent on football stadiums, and many times the teams put pressure on the cities, which were initially reluctant to provide any money. Teams often put immense pressure on the local government and routinely threaten the city with relocation in order to get their way. In 1994, the Rams left Los Angeles for St. Louis because the mayor had refused to pay for a new stadium, and just this past year the left St. Louis for Los Angeles for the same exact reason. In addition, the San Diego Chargers have now become the Los Angeles Chargers, and the Oakland Raiders will soon become the Las Vegas Raiders. Nearly every move in NFL history has occurred because the teams were frustrated with not getting any or “enough” money to build a new stadium, and they were able to create a bidding war with other cities who were willing to pay.

And, as if to make matters worse, the cities that do end up securing an NFL team rarely reap the advertised economic benefits. Although they are recent, the many studies that have been done on cities that subsidize new stadiums have shown no association between the new stadium and an economic boost. In fact, a great majority of the studies show that cities who spend money to attract or retain pro teams generally turn out worse economically than those that do not pursue them. In general, many economists agree that the potential benefits of spending public funds on stadiums for sports teams is not worth the risk. The team owners and the leagues reap most of the rewards while the public bears the bulk of the risk. Additionally, although the stadium projects initially create any jobs for construction, once it is complete these jobs go away. In their place are many temp jobs as vendors and other workers who are paid somewhere around minimum wage. Also, we have to remember that a football stadium is generally only open for about 8-12 games a year, maybe closer to 20 if it is shared with a college team. Other than those days it only opens for a select few concerts or events of that nature. The fact is, for most of the year the stadium is not in use.

In Conclusion

I feel I must point out here that not every NFL team is owned by greedy billionaires. There are, in fact, a great many players and owners who make it a point of theirs to give back to the communities they represent through charity. Atlanta Falcons’ owner Arthur Blank, for example, has focused his charity work on

The Georgia Dome (left) and the brand new Mercedes-Benz Stadium (right) in Atlanta, Georgia.

revitalizing English Avenue and Vine City, two of the poorest neighborhoods in the country, both of which lie only a few blocks from the Georgia Dome and Mercedes-Benz Stadium. However, for each hope-inspiring case such as this, there is another that is equally uninspiring. Take, for example, the case of U.S. Bank Stadium, the new home for the Minnesota Vikings. Initially, the building of the stadium required a public referendum on the issue of public subsidies; however, a “stadium authority” was created to surpass this referendum and allocate the $498 million requested without taxpayer consent.

Actions like this make me wonder how and why it came to be this way. It may not be a huge deal in, say, Los Angeles, with 4 million taxpayers; however, it would be a much larger deal in, say, St. Louis with its 300,000 taxpayers (aka why the Rams moved back to LA). As to how to deal with this, some have suggested legislation to protect local governments (or taxpayers), but anything short of federal action wouldn’t make much of a difference as there are 32 teams and a whole lot more cities that would be happy to take them in. It is true that the allure of a professional sports franchise, especially an NFL team, is very appealing. However, it is also true that we must protect the public from extortion from big businesses and something must be done.



“Building a Stadium, Rebuilding a Neighborhood” – Ken Belson

“Taxpayers Have Spent a ‘Staggering’ Amount of Money on NFL Stadiums” – Travis Waldron

“The Never Ending Stadium Boondoggle” – Richard Florida