Once again, the NCAA has a high-profile amateurism brushfire.
And brushfires don’t get much hotter than the Heisman Trophy winner reportedly being under NCAA investigation for getting paid outside the rules.
Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel’s signed memorabilia issues have spawned two reactions:
• The kid is dumb.
• The rules are dumb.
The latter seems to be the louder sentiment.
That includes this perfectly reasonable piece from my colleague Dan Wetzel. He points out that Manziel absolutely had to know the rules, and flouting them could cost him his eligibility, or at least a large chunk of his sophomore season. But Wetzel’s larger point is that the antiquated rules create an unfair system that unjustly penalizes college athletes.
I’d like to agree, but I can’t get all the way there.
As is often the case, the idea of throwing out – or massively rewriting – the NCAA’s amateurism rules sounds good. It’s the reality and practicality of it that gets problematic.
Because here’s where this goes, if you put every teenage college football and basketball player on the open market, they’ll be asked to make more crucial life decisions than their still-developing maturity and intellect can handle.
I say this as the father of an 18-year-old who leaves for college next week. He’s smart, much smarter than I was at that age. But he would not be ready for what life would be like if he were a professional athlete. And if he’s not, his Class of 2017 peers likely aren’t either.
Let’s say the O’Bannon case against the NCAA breaks the amateurism dam. Let’s say college athletes suddenly can be paid for appearances, for autographs, for doing commercials, etc. Let’s say a school’s boosters are free to massively overpay a five-star recruit for his “autograph” in hopes of swaying him to their alma mater.
Who is going to handle the business side of the young players’ sudden profitability?
Those rules would have to be changed, allowing players to have agents. Some – including Southeastern Conference commissioner Mike Slive – believe that may be a good thing, because schools could have some control over the process.
But anyone who thinks agents would sit around waiting for star athletes to get to college is fooling themselves. They don’t wait for them to turn pro as it is now.
And so the trickle-down effect would really get going. Agents and runners would be all over the kids in high school or earlier. Many already are involved with elite high school prospects, especially in basketball, no matter what the rules say, but this would only accelerate the process.
Sophomores and juniors would be targeted, approached and courted. Decisions would be made well before arriving on campus.
This would be the new scene on national signing day: Joe Fivestar tells a packed gymnasium he will attend Alabama. And has selected Drew Rosenhaus as his representation. And will be signing an endorsement deal with Proactiv acne care in the very near future.
How many kids, at 16 or 17, can start making an informed and intelligent decision about professional athletic representation? How kids, at 18 or 19, would know how to manage their money? We see enough adult athletes make terrible choices and lose everything in those situations as it is.
Yes, their parents could help. But a significant percentage of high-end prospects don’t come from the most sophisticated or stable backgrounds. Some are not sports-savvy.
So they might rely on their school to help. Are high school coaches and athletic directors equipped for this sort of thing? Do they have the time, background or interest in fitting pending commercial endorsements and agent representation for their star players into the schedule?
I know kids have turned pro as teenagers in other sports, like tennis and gymnastics and golf. But the numbers are smaller than they would be in football and basketball, and the process is not complicated by booster involvement. And even with the smaller sample size, there have been plenty of teen disasters coming out of those situations.
The reality is that an open market on teenage athletic talent would invite even more vultures and predators into the lives of athletes at an even younger age. If that’s the solution, I’m not in favor.
If the decision is made that the amateurism model is dead at the college level, then colleges need to get out of the business of semi-pro sports. Establish a football minor league, enhance the NBA Developmental League, follow the baseball model – you can go pro right out of high school if you want, or come to school and stay for two or three years.
Because the athletic tail has wagged the academic dog so hard that the tail has just about broken off and become its own entity. Many colleges already have warped their academic mission to feed the sports monster when it comes to admissions, facilities and salaries. If anyone thinks putting pro teenagers on college campuses is going to lessen that trend, be my guest.
If athletes want to “build their brand” and get paid by the time they’re 18, fine. Turn pro and skip college altogether.
The endorsements and autograph signings would only get in the way of going to class anyway.
Pat Forde is Yahoo! Sports’ national college columnist. He is an award-winning writer, author and commentator with 25 years experience in newspapers and online. This article is reprinted here with the written permission of Yahoo!