The debate around college athletes going pro will likely never cease, as, even in light of widely-applauded rule changes, judgments still abound about players who leave early being “selfish” or “money grabbing” or, more positively, “sharp” and “in tune with their value.” Of course, in the case of football, the rules are not in favor of college athletes, whose decision to turn pro is, with few exceptions, no better than a coin flip.
The relationship between collegiate/amateur athletes and professional athletes is perhaps the most archaic in football compared to any other sport. Not only do the NBA, NHL and MLB support robust farm team or developmental league networks, but the governing bodies for the three other “major” sports in the US (sorry, soccer fans) have also seen fit to update their policies regarding college players going pro.
Which leads us to an anomaly for this column and this site. It’s not often when we can give credit to Michigan football, but today might be the closest I come. Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh released an open letter last week which discussed empowering student athletes on their decisions to turn pro. Although, Harbaugh clearly stated that he was writing on behalf of himself and that his thoughts were not those of the University of Michigan. So, credit to Michigan is still limited.
Harbaugh’s plan centers on three tenets:
- A player choosing when he wants to declare for the draft - regardless of class year or years removed from high school.
- The opportunity for a player to complete his degree either concurrent with his time in the NFL or after his playing career.
- An increased ability for players and families to consult with lawyers and agents before signing a professional contract.
To me, these changes are no brainers, though I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve always been pretty conservative when it comes to professional eligibility for NCAA athletes. For example, I’ve felt the one-and-done rule in the NCAA for basketball hurts everyone by forcing athletes to take essentially a year-long hiatus on their way to the pros. It’s unlikely they’re making major headway in terms of their education, while their early departurest hurts their teammates and programs.
In the case of football, I’ve always felt that prep-to-pro is a bad look. Sure, you get some high school players who enter college with the size and strength to make it in the pros, but these individuals are the exceptions rather than the rule. Imagine an eighteen year old — any eighteen year old — taking on JJ Watt. Watt himself was just 6-foot-5, 220-pounds coming out of high school (he’s currently 6-foot-5, 288-pounds). Players — granted, in some positions more than others — need the time to grow and develop for the contact that defines football.
But when it comes down to it, the rules truly punish student athletes in football, with the common issue being the immediate and permanent loss of amateur status players experience when they opt to go pro. In 2019, 49 of 144 players who entered the draft early ultimately went undrafted. Those players can’t go back to college.
When you consider the NBA, back before the one-and-done rule was implemented, there were certainly plenty of examples of direct high school to pro athletes who were successful: Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Garnett, Dwight Howard and Tracy McGrady, to name a few. There were also many high schoolers who had every reason to believe they’d go straight to the NBA and be successful and whose names are long but forgotten except as cautionary tales.
Sure, it was apparent that LeBron would be successful in the pros. By the time he left high school, James was 6-foot-8, 240-pounds. In other words, he had the measurables which showed he could do well at the next level.
Of course, LeBron isn’t the standard, and it’s hard to gauge who will be successful at a higher level. Only a small percentage of high school athletes will end up with Division I offers, and many high schools are small and/or don’t always make cuts for their teams. What that means is that the “outstanding” players we see might not pan out, because we can’t really tell how “outstanding” they are until we get some data against tougher competition.
We’ve all been watching The Last Dance, because what else are we doing now? Scottie Pippin grew seven inches in college at the University of Central Arkansas (because he didn’t receive a single Division I offer). If we’d projected his NBA success based on his senior season in high school, we’d miss out on one of the greatest players in NBA history.
But back to football, which is a completely different game than basketball, which might lead to some of the disparity in eligibility rules between the two sports. Football is a high-contact sport, while basketball, with the exception of the Pistons in the 90s and also the Monstars in Space Jam, is not. Again, with notable exceptions, football players need some time to develop physically before they move to the pros.
That’s where the adjustment in eligibility, mentioned by Harbaugh, comes in handy. Though it doesn’t solve the issue of players getting drafted and then ultimately failing out of the professional league, it does solve the problem of kids who think they’ll get drafted who don’t get selected and who then lose out on their future opportunities. Additionally, the plan outlined by Harbaugh provides a contingency for players who fall out of the NFL - a trip back to school on scholarship. And considering just 55% of black male student athletes earn their degrees within six years, it’s a relevant change that truly supports the players.
For comparison, the MLB and NHL also have progressive draft policies, which support players’ education and professional prospects simultaneously. While it’s unlikely the NHL’s model which, for instance, drafts players between the ages of 18-20, would work for other leagues, it’s a cool concept in that it allows teams to draft players well before they leave school. Players can stay in school, grow and develop their games, while teams have the rights to players to support their franchise one to three years down the road.
I love the idea of restoring amateur status to players if the draft doesn’t work out for them, as well as the stipulation that players and families can get additional information from agents and lawyers ahead of the draft. The information asymmetry between players and franchises is one of the major problems in drafts.
The NBA, per the usual, has been one of the more progressive leagues in leveling the playing field between players and franchises, allowing players to return to college after working out at the NBA Combine and receiving a scouting report.
Now, the NBA allows prodigious players to bypass college entirely to go to the G League. While the conservative in me, who thinks players need that extra step to develop in college, is mildly horrified, the move makes a ton of sense for all parties involved: college teams can be built around the expectation of players staying for more than a year. Perhaps we won’t see the rapid rise and fall of teams in a single year as freshmen develop and burn out. Recruiting becomes smoother as coaches build rosters on a four year cycle instead of one, and are forced to build teams instead of collections of superstars we’ll never see in the NCAA again (looking at you, John Calipari).
Moreover, the new experience is better for the players who stick around. Just like most high school players don’t go to Division I, most collegiate players don’t make the pros. Now, the college game is reserved for those who are committed to being there for probably more than a year, while those prodigies who can and desire to make it to the pros outside of college don’t take scholarships from others who want to play in college.
Once again, I’ve gotten distracted by the lure of basketball’s progressive system. Back to football, and what Harbaugh’s system would mean for Ohio State. Realistically, these rule changes would affect those with high draft stock - those who would benefit most from leaving early and whose stock wouldn’t improve with an additional season of play.
What would that mean for recent years? Maybe Chase Young would have come out a year early. Maybe Nick Bosa would have come out a year earlier, which, in hindsight, would have really worked out for him. Maybe Justin Fields would choose to enter the draft, though he’d have to be competing with Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert for a top-10 spot in 2020. The rule would certainly benefit players like Bosa or Tua Tagovailoa, whose final seasons were cut short due to injury.
Sure, cynics might say that Harbaugh wants eligibility rules relaxed because it would favor Michigan. Keep in mind Michigan had five early entries in the 2020 NFL Draft to Ohio State’s eight, so while there’s still a disparity, it’s not an all-or-nothing.
Realistically, from a team perspective, the rule would benefit teams like service academies (hey, Air Force!) or Utah, where players generally take a full four to five years to develop or, in the case of service academies, don’t have the option to leave early.
The NCAA has proven itself shockingly progressive in recent years with changes that finally benefit student athletes. Relaxing transfer rules more clearly aligns player benefits with those of coaches. Now, these proposals, even if they come from a Michigan man, might serve to further level the playing field for players.