That big-time college sports are badly broken is no secret. Coaches and institutions make a fortune while players not only are not paid, they cannot make money from their likeness or their signature.
There’s an argument to be made that the players are getting a valuable education for free. But the actuality of the situation makes this fall short. Far too many “student-athletes” are pressured into a course of study that is less about educating them than keeping them eligible. There is scandal after scandal where athletes have tutors write papers for them, have their transcripts doctored, receive credits from shady institutions despite doing little or no work and so on.
Athletes often are not able to enjoy college life beyond the classroom as well. Even after the season is done there are hours of off-season conditioning and practices, often “voluntary” to get around NCAA restrictions on the amount of time athletes can spend on a sport. Waking up hours before most of their fellow classmates during the entire school year, they are too exhausted for extracurriculars and casual socializing. Living in athletic dorms and eating at training tables further isolates them.
But what if there was a way that young football and men’s basketball players (the two big revenue producers in college sports) could earn a fair wage for their labors, get a good education, and live the life of a normal college student? Luckily there is and it comes in what might be seen as an unusual place, the formation of a minor league that also educates the players.
Here’s how it would work in football: In the fall, players of college age would play in a pro league. They would be paid their market value and could sign anything they want for as much as they could get. They could endorse products and do ads. They’re professionals.
In the spring they would go to college. They would go to college wherever they want. They could go to MIT (which plays Division III football) or Cal Arts or Moody Bible Institute (which don’t field football teams at all.) When they’re at this college they could live like other students. They could schedule their first classes for 10 a.m. and wake up at 9. They could go to class and eat lunch with whomever they choose and go to more class and hit the weight room at 5 before going to dinner with, if they wanted, no other football players at all. Players could take a full schedule in the spring, another class during a summer session before returning to training camp, and do another class, probably online, during the season.
Of course, they could do other things besides go to college in the off-season. They could volunteer with the needy, full time or part, in any country they choose. They could work jobs and do internships. Imagine a young man who isn’t, at least at the age of 18, particularly interested in academics, but likes cars very much. The first off-season he could train as a mechanic. The second he could sell cars. The third he might be interested in taking some engineering courses, or courses that would get him prepared to take engineering courses later, in order to design them.
Of course none of this would be mandatory. If an athlete were to not want to enroll in school, work or do volunteer work it’s their choice.
This exact strategy could not easily be duplicated in basketball because basketball season extends over both fall and spring semesters. But basketball has something football does not, being popular in many places outside of the U.S. One thing that could work very well would be to form a team of top American players who have just graduated from high school to play in the Euro League instead of doing “one and done” at a U.S. university before going to the NBA. They could study part-time at a European university, learn the language of where there team is based, and so on. Educational opportunities in the D-League in the U.S. and in other minor league sports could be beefed-up as well.
None of this would “ruin” college sports. Letting those who want to go pro do so would make for a better overall atmosphere in the college ranks. The option for young athletes to play professionally would also give a hard and well-needed push to compensate college athletes appropriately.
Joseph Leff is a writer living in Santa Monica who has published nonfiction in places such as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Backpacker, Black Belt, Publisher’s Weekly, and The Rumpus among others as well as short fiction and poetry. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.