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Creating a minor league for football and basketball could save college athletics. Here's why.

Michigan football stadium
Mark Brush
Michigan Radio
The Wolverines set to score against Ohio State in 2005.

Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said last week that football and basketball might work better if they had minor leagues, so players who didn’t want to attend college had somewhere else to go.    

I came to the same conclusion several years ago, though for different reasons.  Most of the problems with college football and basketball can be traced back to their beginnings.  Unlike most sports, football and basketball developed on college campuses.  When the NFL and NBA opened decades later, they didn’t have to start their own minor leagues, they simply used the college teams to develop their players. 

That’s why most football and basketball players have only one path to the big leagues: through the NCAA.  This makes no sense.  Pele never had to pass 12 credits before playing in his first World Cup, and the University of Chicago doesn’t need a football team to be a world-class university.    

Almost everybody agrees we can longer support the farce the NCAA has become, but we can’t agree on how to fix it.  The most popular idea is to pay the players.  After all, it seems like everybody is making millions off the athletes, except the athletes.  And it’s only going to get worse with the first college football playoff this winter, whose TV rights alone will be worth $470 million dollars a year for three games. 

But if we pay college athletes, Title IX will dictate the All-American quarterback and the field hockey goalie receive the same salary.  So when people talk about $20,000 “salaries” for college athletes, the cost at the biggest athletic departments will quickly exceed $10 million.   

Those payments won’t be taken out of the coaches’ bloated salaries, but from from jersey sales, seat license “donations,” corporate partnerships, and the ads that come with them -- the very things that alienate lifelong fans. 

Paying players will not solve this problem – the players will soon want more, just like the coaches – but it will create many new ones.  The sport’s biggest problem is not scandals but greed – and this will only spread the disease.  Paying college athletes will turn them into employees, opening a Pandora’s box of legal complications. 

And the idea assumes college football’s current TV ratings, sweetheart corporate deals and sold-out games will continue.  But we’ve seen plenty of signs around the country that the fans are nearing their breaking point. 

If you crank up all these things another notch or two to pay players, you risk losing a generation of fans, and the whole enterprise will erode.  The question of paying the players will become truly academic if there’s no money to pay them. 

What football and basketball players need is what baseball and hockey players have enjoyed for almost a century: a viable minor league, so players who don’t want to be college students, and want to be paid, can do just that. 

This would cut down on the scandals that beset the sports overnight. 

Okay, but why would the NFL and NBA ever pay to develop players they’ve been getting for free?  They wouldn’t, so you’d have to force them. 

But forcing them can be accomplished in one step: bring back freshmen ineligibility, which requires players to sit for one year before playing in games. If you want to make college sports honest, that’s how you do it.

In fact, that was the rule from 1905 until 1972, and for a simple reason: colleges actually believed their athletes should be students first.  It gave all athletes a year to get their feet on the ground, and catch up where needed.

Until the people running college football bring back freshmen ineligibility, you should not take them seriously when they speak of “student-athletes.”  They do not mean it.  

Listen to full essay above.

John U. Bacon has worked nearly three decades as a writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor, winning awards for all three.
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