NFL Should Pay Colleges For Developing Their Talent

I write about sports only about every other year. Four years ago, I asked the Ducks to stop automatically kicking extra points. Why play for one point after a touchdown when two are available? That aggressiveness will attract recruits and the media will learn to love the “two-buck Ducks.”

Two years ago, when the University of Oregon found itself enmeshed in local Portland politics over the iconic sign atop its landmark White Stag building, I noted that we could solve the problem by changing our mascot from the frumpy-but-lovable Duck to a fleeting-but-mythical White Stag.

Those two columns are recalled by readers more often than almost any others. So far, people have been kind enough never to mention that they contradict one another — the “two-buck White Stags” doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue.

In sports-page parlance, my sports coverage batting average is only .010. But the beauty of sport is you don’t have to know a lot to care a lot. Knowledge and passion can be blissfully bifurcated. That’s good for adult fans, but lousy for high school athletes. Fewer than one percent of college football players go on to play professionally — for an average of only four years.

Statistics drive most sport stories, but lately those stats have included dollar signs: $3 billion for television rights, $20.5 million for a football coach, $25,000 for a questionable recruiting package, $8,527.50 for one player’s traffic tickets. Sports fans cannot escape trickle-down economics.

Nor can money in collegiate sports much longer be separated from the players whose performances attract it. The National College Players Association recently delivered to the NCAA a report entitled “The Price of Poverty in Big Time College Sport,” estimating the average college football player devotes 43.3 hours each week to his sporting commitment.

Atlantic Monthly magazine this month devotes its cover to Pulitzer Prize winner Taylor Branch’s analysis. He claims the status of today’s “student-athlete” is closer to a plantation slave than anything we would recognize as either a student or an athlete.

Indeed, “student-athlete” is a term invented by the NCAA to save its member universities from the workers’ compensation expenses that federal law mandates for all employees. Football in particular is hazardous work, so universities understandably resist categorizing participation in intercollegiate sports as “work.”

I asked Kidsports Executive Director Bev Smith what she thought. “Only a small percentage make it to the professional ranks, so maybe student athletes should make money in college. It might be the last time they get that kind of paycheck for their sporting life. But if they don’t take care of their education for a career after college, what to do?” Confusion is the only honest response to the system we’re currently using.

If it’s work the players are doing, who should be paying them? Media, marketers, fans and alumni have funded collegiate sports so far. But one group is suspiciously absent: the National Football League, which use schools as their minor league.

Think of the money Sunday teams save by allowing Saturday teams to develop their talent. (The Saturday/Sunday scheduling truce between college and pro football was part of the Congressional Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961 that exempts the NFL from certain anti-trust laws.)

NFL teams should be required to disclose what they pay each “entry-level” employee in first-year salary plus signing bonuses and match it with a grant to the university that player attended. Universities should respond with complete transparency.

Where should that new money end up? I don’t know.

Let schools experiment during a decade of transition, but classifying their student-athletes as the workers they are. Some schools will cover players’ living expenses. Others will share NFL revenue with all team members. Stars might get paid large sums at some schools, but not at others. Some schools might use the revenue to reduce tuition for all students.

Let parents and high school counselors watch and determine each school’s values. Honest chaos would be much better than the dishonest stability we see today. Best practices will emerge only over time.

Who knows? Professional football might find it cheaper to start their own minor league, as baseball does. In any case, talented high schoolers deserve the right to choose between a career and an education.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column for The Register-Guard each Friday and blogs.