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February 14, 2005

Thoughts on the regulation of minor league football and basketball

Several developments over the past month or so have prompted me to think about the National Collegiate Athletic Association's regulation of minor league football and basketball. Although it is an unincorporated association that includes many of the best universities in America, the NCAA has developed into a hulking and bloated bureaucracy that is the poster child for ineffective and misguided regulation.

One of the developments that triggered my thinking was the disclosure this past week that one of the best players on each of the University of Texas' basketball, football and baseball teams had been declared academically ineligible for the spring semester. That's not much of a return on the astounding $1.6 million a year that UT is currently spending on academic assistance for its athletes.

This UT academic problems come on the heels of the announcement last month that the NCAA -- whose rules and regulations manual already resembles the Internal Revenue Code in terms of size and complexity -- approved the first phase of a "landmark" academic reform package under which about 30 percent of Division I football teams (including UT's) would lose scholarships if the reforms were to be implemented immediately. The demand for professors with expertise in developing basket-weaving curricula is going to increase at more than a few NCAA member institutions in response to this latest NCAA initiative.

Meanwhile, partly as a result of the NCAA's strict regulation of compensation that can be paid to athletes in intercollegiate football and basketball (i.e., essentially scholarships), salaries for college coaches skyrocket at the same time as a black market for compensating college football and basketball players continues to run rampant, despite the NCAA and now the government's efforts to curtail it.

Finally, a college baseball game in Houston over the weekend between Rice and Texas A&M during the Minute Maid Classic Baseball Classic drew almost 20,000 fans. That's right -- a college baseball game, in February, drew almost 20,000 fans.

What are we to make of all of this?

Well, a bit of historical perspective helps. For all of its faults, Major League Baseball is the only one of the three major professional sports (football, basketball and baseball) that has capitalized and subsidized a thorough minor league development system. Oh, the NBA has its development league and the NFL has NFL Europe, but both of these ventures pale in comparison to the depth and success of baseball's minor league system. As a result, it's relatively rare for a baseball player to play in the Major Leagues without spending at least some time playing minor league baseball. In comparison, relatively few of the players in the NFL or the NBA ever play in NFL-Europe or the NBADL.

The reason for this is not that professional football and basketball players do not need to develop their skills in a minor league. Rather, the reason is that professional football and basketball simply rely on a ready-made minor league systems to develop most of their players -- that is, intercollegiate football and basketball.

This odd arrangement arose partly as a result of how professional sports developed in America over the past century. On one hand, professional baseball was already well-established in the late 19th century when intercollegiate football and basketball started taking root. Thus, MLB developed its minor league system as a necessary means to develop its players decades before intercollegiate baseball became popular on college campuses. Intercollegiate baseball has only become a source of player development for professional baseball over the past couple of decades or so, and it is still rare for a college baseball player to go straight from playing college baseball to playing in the Major Leagues.

On the other hand, despite the popularity of the NFL and the NBA today, the success of of those professional sports is still relatively recent in comparison with MLB's business success over the past century. Until the 1960's in regard to football, and the 1980's in regard to basketball, neither professional sport was particularly vibrant financially or as popular with the public as their intercollegiate counterparts. Thus, until relatively recently, neither the NFL nor the NBA has been in a financial position to capitalize a minor league system of player development similar to MLB's minor league system.

However, now that the NFL and the NBA owners have the financial wherewithal to subsidize viable minor league systems, they have little economic incentive to do so. Inasmuch as the NCAA and its member institutions have transformed intercollegiate football and basketball into a free minor league system for the NFL and the NBA, the owners of professional football and basketball teams have gladly accepted the NCAA member institutions' generosity.

The arrangement has been extraordinary successful for professional football and basketball owners, who have seen the value of their clubs skyrocket over the past two decades. A substantial part of that increase in value is attributable to avoiding the cost of developing a minor league system, as well as taking advantage of liberal public financing arrangements for the construction of new stadiums and areanas. That latter point is a subject for another day.

In comparison, the NCAA member institutions' acceptance of minor league professional status has not been nearly as successful. Yes, the top tier of intercollegiate football and basketball programs have had been successful financially, but the athletic programs of most NCAA member institutions struggle financially.

Moreover, almost every NCAA member institution compromises academic integrity at least to some extent in order to attract the best players possible to play on the institution's football and basketball teams. As a result, respected academics such as UT Chancellor Mark Yudof regularly have to endure troubling scandals (in Yudof's case, as president of the University of Minnesota) that underscore the tension between the business of minor league professional sports and the academic integrity of NCAA member institutions. The NCAA member institutions' reaction to these conflicts has generally been to increase regulation with usually unsatisfactory results.

So, what is the solution to this mess? Well, it's doubtful that more regulation of college football and basketball is the answer. Rather, my sense is that the model for reform is right in the front of the noses of the NCAA member institutions -- i.e., college baseball.

Due to MLB's well-structured minor league system of player development, a baseball player emerging from high school has a choice: Do I accept a moderate compensation level to play professional ball in the minor leagues in the hope of developing to the point of being a highly-paid MLB player? Or do I hedge the risk of not developing sufficiently to play at the MLB level by accepting a subsidized college education while developing my skills playing intercollegiate baseball?

This simple choice is the key difference between intercollegiate football and basketball, on one hand, and intercollegiate baseball on the other. Except for the relatively few high school basketball players who are sufficiently developed to be able to play professional basketball in the NBA or Europe immediately after high school, high school football and basketball players' only realistic choice for developing the skills to play at the highest professional level is college football or basketball.

Consequently, each year, the NCAA member institutions fall over themselves trying to accomodate a large pool of talented football and basketball players who have little or no interest in collegiate academics. Rather than placing the cost and risk of these players' development on the professional football and basketball clubs, the NCAA member institutions continue to incur the huge cost of subsidizing development of these players while engaging in the charade that these professional players are really "student-athletes."

In comparison, most top college baseball teams are generally comprised of two types of players -- a few professional-caliber players combined with a greater number of well-motivated student-athletes. That is an attractive blend of players, and the tremendous increase in popularity of college baseball over the past decade reflects the entertaining competition that results from such a player mix. Heck, the college baseball system is structured so well that even a small academic institution can win the National Championship in college baseball.

Nevertheless, transforming the current minor league system in college football and basketball into the college baseball model is going to take fundamental reforms within the NCAA. Primarily, it's going to require the courage and resilience of the presidents of the NCAA member institutions, who need to stand up and quit being played as patsies by the NFL and NBA owners who prefer to foist the risk of funding and administering minor league systems on to the NCAA member institutions.

Moreover, such a transformation of college football and basketball from entrenched minor league systems will be risky. The quality of play in college football and basketball will suffer a bit, even though the competition likely would not. In time, such a transformation would force both the NFL and the NBA to expand their minor league systems to develop the skills of the pool of physically-gifted athletes who prefer to develop their skills as minor league professionals rather than as college students. Competition from such true minor league football and basketball teams might result in a decrease in popularity of college football and basketball.

However, such a transformation would remove most of the galling incentives to compromise academic integrity and to engage in the black market for compensating players that are rife under the current system. Likewise, once viable professional minor leagues in football and basketball exist, football and basketball players will have the same choice coming out of high school that has generated the well-motivated mix of players that has made college baseball such an entertaining intercollegiate sport over the past decade.

Now that type of choice -- rather than the choice of which basket-weaving course to take in order to remain eligible -- is the kind of choice that NCAA member institutions should be encouraging.

Posted by Tom at February 14, 2005 6:30 AM |


"On one hand, professional baseball was already well-established in the late 19th century when intercollegiate football and basketball started
taking root. Thus, MLB developed its minor league system as a necessary means to develop its players decades before intercollegiate baseball became popular on college campuses."

I'm not sure how much I agree with this. The minor league "farm system" as we know it was the brainchild of Branch Rickey, and that was begun in (I believe) the 1930s. In the very old days of baseball what you had was a lot of semi-pro and "bush" leagues, from which some lucky players might get discovered by a roving scout. (Some, like Ty Cobb, who wrote a huge number of "fan" letters to Grantland Rice until he finally wrote about him, didn't leave it up to fate.) Some latter "minor" leagues weren't really minor at all - the Pacific Coast League, where Joe DiMaggio got his start, was in many ways a major league and nearly merged with the existing leagues prior to the Dodgers' and Giants' westward migrations.

"Intercollegiate baseball has only become a source of player development for professional baseball over the past couple of decades or so."

Yes and no. Lou Gehrig played ball at Columbia. Frankie Frisch was a graduate of Fordham. Heck, turn-of-the-century great Christy Mathewson was
a three-sport man at Bucknell. I agree that the NCAA pipeline is much bigger, and much more attractive to prospects now than it once was, but it existed to a limited extent before then.

Charles Kuffner

Posted by: Charles Kuffner at February 16, 2005 8:56 PM


I found your site and like to say that there was some good ideas and observations. I agree with what you are saying about the NFL and NBA using the NCAA institutions as farm systems, thats why I have been deloping a plan to create a low cost high revenue bulding minor league system for the NFL. There is a league called the North American Football League that has teams across the nation and in most NFL markets. I would use them as well as some other aspects, to give footall players coming out of high school the ability of choice. I am always looking for help on this project so if you have ideas or insite feel free to use my email.

Jeremy DeLorm
Southern Tier Green Machine Football Team

Posted by: Jeremy DeLorm at May 4, 2005 10:20 AM

Great take. I agree completely. I have written for several sites about the need to change the way players develop and pursue professional athletics, and also about the cheapening of the academic standards which arise when top academic universities compromise their academic integrity for athletic success.
Nice post.

Posted by: B at October 17, 2005 4:25 PM

Does the degree of emotional intensity that we see in March Madness in some way reflect our conscious, yet suppressed, knowledge that for some of the players who donít win, who donít make it, that agony of defeat, is in the sweepstakes of life? We understand, in some small way, that March Madness is for keeps; that if you donít win here, now, you are going to build decks for the rest of your life instead of playing pro basketball.

Posted by: Ken Krayeske at January 24, 2006 9:37 AM

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