The Case For Minor League Football

I pass this on because it’s a subject that we have been discussing lately. Former coach Gerry DiNardo makes the case for allowing 18 year olds to play football professionally:

In June 2001, Mary Sue Coleman, then the president of the University of Iowa, was asking the same question. The Knight Commission — a watchdog group whose members include figures from the academic, athletic and journalism communities — was meeting to examine the issues facing college athletics. During the hearings, there was a presentation about a new minor league for college-age basketball players by Russ Granik, the deputy commissioner of the N.B.A. Granik told the commission members that the new league would include players age 20 or older, in order to avoid competing with the N.C.A.A. Coleman asked, “Why not take 18-year-olds?” She said that would give those athletes graduating from high school with no interest in a college education another option. Other commission members concurred, and Granik agreed it might be something to consider. […]

Another way to ask the question is, Why not treat high school football players like high school baseball players? Or even music students? I was the coach at Indiana University for 1,032 days. One of the things I came to learn about Indiana is that it has a great music school with very talented students, some of whom followed a nontraditional academic path. Some would graduate from high school and go directly into the music business and then enroll in the university a few years later. Some would enroll immediately after high school, then leave for a professional music opportunity; some would come back and others would not.

One of the things that we haven’t really talked about is that a number of college football athletes actually are professional athletes (in the legitimate sense). One of my school’s defensive backs was a minor league baseball player. I remember several years ago when Cedric Benson’s dorm was broken into and an expensive (at the time) flat-screen TV was stolen, a lot of people scoffed at how Benson could afford such a thing as an “amateur athlete.” The answer was that in the offseason, he was a part of the Los Angeles Dodgers organization. A minor league football player could actually go to college under a scholarship for some other sport. It wouldn’t be a full scholarship, but it might help. Plus, they might have some of the money to pay for college themselves, if that’s what they wanted to do.

This is more of an observation than an argument. All of the arguments in the world in favor of a minor league football system don’t measure up to the single, two-part argument against: Minor league sports lose money, and the NFL doesn’t have to lose that money.

Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.


  1. The NFL doesn’t have to lose that money because there already is an extensive, competitive, and powerful minor-league system in play already. We call it the NCAA and quite a lot of people actually prefer it to the NFL.

    As we’ve observed, the NCAA is far from unprofitable. True, the players either don’t get a significant piece of the action, or if they do, we’re all supposed to think it’s a bad thing because it’s not harmonious with a myth about “student-athletes.”

  2. As we’ve observed, the NCAA is far from unprofitable.

    Except for the vast majority of athletics departments, of course…

      • Fair ’nuff, gentlemen.

        Still, why should the NFL subsidize farm teams to identify and develop talent, when colleges will do it for them for free?

        • If they did it in the right markets, perhaps they make money? Not NCAA money, of course, but money all the same.

          Although what they would give up would be the Buzz certain rookie players give teams coming into new seasons. A minor league wouldn’t create the kind of player PR that college sports can.

          • A minor league wouldn’t create the kind of player PR that college sports can.

            I think this deserves more examination. Not its truth – that’s clear. But why exactly, from a spectator-commercial standpoint, do we care about college athletics (in addition to their elite-professional counterparts) so much more than we do about minor-league versions of sports. (I.e. people go crazy over the NCAA Tourney – even the women’s – and obviously over college football, and spend the corresponding dollars on it, in a way they simply do not even on your local AAA Rockies affiliate. And BTW, don’t let anyone tell you that college athletics aren’t profitable just because the majority of athletic departments don’t net a profit. The sports-industrial-media complex don’t spend the money they spend to get the rights to televise these events if it wasn’t going t net them even more money.). Why is that? And are we sure it’s really a reason to prefer the low-paying minor league model to what we have.

            Standard disclaimer: this is not an argument that the restriction from playing in the NFL before being out of high school three years shouldn’t be lifted, that a minor league shouldn’t be established, that the restriction of players receiving compensation shouldn’t be lifted, or even that colleges shouldn’t consider voluntarily choosing to compensate players at a level above what they currently do. But it is meant to question just how much, relative to what we have, the elite players themselves Who are the only ones being arguably harmed by the current system) would actually prefer the establishment of what is being discussed here to what they have the option to participate in now.

          • I think, MD, that it’s a combination of two things: the first is that college football is so steeped in tradition that it has its own gravitas, deserved or not. I have been to NFL games in various cities, and I know that NFL fans like to think that they are the best most loyal and rabid fans in the world. A trip to a game at Sooner Stadium (OK), or Autzen (UO), or the Colosseum (USC) will quickly show them how wrong they are.

            The other is that in college, a star player is really a star. When those players go on to the NFL they will play against opponents of their caliber, but in college those guys are just that much faster, stinger and smarter, and you can spent the whole game watching them dazzle you until the final gun and you walk away mistakenly believing they are the single greatest human being ever to play that position.

          • Remember the World League of American Football? That was probably better than a minor league and it folded. Then there was the XFL and the UFL. They folded.

          • Yeah, that’s more what I was getting at, though Tod clearly answered the question I actually placed. I guess what I wonder about is if we really think that lifting the requirement that kids be out of high school for three years and establishing an NFL-associated minor league is going to end up creating a situation for these youngsters that is better for them than they have now, despite being unremunerated in terms of cash payments.

            There’s a justice argument that they deserve the option, and perhaps it is paternalistic of me not to just leave it at that, but I just really wonder whether the actual welfare outcomes end up being better, especially if the new league is one that the NFL has to be dragged kicking and screaming into establishing and administrating. For the majority of minor-league ballplayers, their pursuit of the game is driven by a true love of the game, and has to be, because the life of the average minor-league baseball players has little to recommend it in terms of material compensation, fame, or realistic dreams of Major League stardom.

            Again, that might be an improvement on the set of opportunities that the current system offers to talented young football players. But I’m nowhere near convinced that would be the case – it depends on a lot of contingent factors in what the new thing exactly ended up being like – and it seems like an important thing to get pretty clear about before moving ahead with reforms based on principle alone.

          • MD, I really appreciate your comments here. The truth is that even if we had a minor league football system, a lot of kids (maybe most?) would still go the college route. It’s less about pushing them in one direction or the other and more about giving them the choice. Because while college may be a life-enhancing experience for you and me, it’s really not one for someone who doesn’t want to be there. So I think that they should have that option, as well.

          • I think I ultimately agree, Will. I think my reaction is more to some of the language that is used to describe the degree of the injustice that is being perpetrated against the players in the current system as compared to the reality that would obtain if the relevant limitations on their freedom were simply lifted. But that’s no argument to continue those limitations – I’m on board there.

          • Oh, I completely agree with that. Especially when it’s compared to slavery or indentured servitude. I know it’s not intended that way, but I consider the comparisons insulting when we look at what those two things actually are.

        • Precisely the conclusion in my last paragraph :).

          To the extent that there is an answer, I think Maurice Clarett was close to it. He is the guy who sued the NFL for their age restriction. Had he won, things actually might be different. Kids would have tried out for the NFL and the league would have been in a spot. They could let the guy’s talent wither and die, or they could put him someplace to keep him training until he was ready. On a wide enough scale, it might have had an impact. With rare exception, kids at 18 aren’t ready to play in the NFL. And if they don’t do anything from 18-20 they can waste away.

          • Dudes–It’s about the white boy/girl sports: soccer, golf, volleyball, swimming, baseball. Bowling, fer crissakes, water polo, and godknows what else. They all get scholarships too.

            This ain’t my particular thing, but word up. Peel back the onion, get rigorous if this is yr thing. 😉

            Nobody gets crippled for life with a golfing injury…

          • But why would he not do anything? If he was truly NFL-caliber if not NFL-ready, why wouldn’t he accept an offer to be put up, fed, offered classes in a range of topics, and above all trained in the game of football until he was ready to hold a roster spot on an NFL team, something which would likely be on offer in the world you’re describing, and would certainly be on offer t for such a kid in the world that exists? I’m still not convinced that doing that leaves most football players significantly worse off than would spending those years in a minor-league system that gives them none of those other things and replaces them with a low salary (certainly no minor league footbal system would operate with an implicit promise that any given player has guaranteed future in The Show). This is not an argument that a minor league shouldn’t be established and players released to do whatever they see fit with their late teen years – that the option itself isn’t valuable. I’m just slightly skeptical that the real harm that is occurring for the youngsters themselves as compared to a world defined by your reforms (which again, I don’t oppose) is quite as great as is often suggested.

          • The question, though, is why we need the fig-leaf of college attendance while that all happens. If everybody, from the kid on up, knows that he’s getting drafted the day after commencement, then why wait? Just “provisionally draft” him and have him be part of the organization, training and practicing and learning football, until he’s old enough to legally play. If his career is going to be playing football then why does he need to go to Rocks For Jocks or Basket-Weaving or whatever?

            Besides which I’d argue that hanging around actual adults is going to be better for his character development than spending five years in an environment where he’s the best there is at what he does, and has nobody around him to say “ramp it down, son”. (I mean, not that football players are paragons of virtue, but it’s hard to be arrogant when everyone around you is just as good as you are and has years of experience to go with it.)

          • DD, I think I may just have almost diametrically different pictures of the suitability for impressionable young people of environment that an NFL franchise would provide to a non-playing trainee hanger-on vis-a-vis the environment that a university who sees it as its mission with respect to these talented young people to train them to become professional football players if possible, or else to provide them with the opportunity to avail themselves of the primary mode of career advancement that we still have in this society. I do think that we should begin to be honest that for the most part these students do not have the academic credentials that their classmates do, but at the same time, every single entering class at Harvard has people among it who did not earn their way in by standard metrics, but rather are there because of the contributions they (i.e. their families) made to the institution over time. There is very little difference between that contribution and the one that many of these players are able to make via the reality of the interest in this part of the university’s activities as described by Tod above. They deserve to be there (tho I agree we should be willing to be clear about why), so long as we have a reasonable understanding f how universities should assess merit. We can say that universities across the board should have only academics as their ultimate mission and standard of assessment of all merit, but the fact is that that is simply not an actual limitation that the university in our culture applies to what it and we see as its cultural role. It would be like saying that the Catholic church should focus only on refining and promulgating doctrine and not on good works. Well, the Catholic Church happens to see its role differently.

            This is where I guess I become a moderate institutional conservative of a kind (come to think of it, that’s not so different to my views on things like Social Security, Medicare, even the military – I’m basically for incremental adaptation, improvement, and building on what we have, and only rarely for dismantlement or radical, discontinuous reform…). In some real sense, the reason we need the “fig leaf” of college attendance for the training of football players is just that that is how the system evolved, and that is where the expertise in that endeavor, to the extent it exists, currently lies. This is clearly a status-quo defense, but in this case I’m not seeing the case for change being made in truly compelling terms – that is, change beyond the elimination of clearly unfair limitations on the players’ options, namely the requirement that they be out of high school for three years before being in the NFL, and the draconian prohibition on taking any compensation for the value of their fame and talent while affiliated with the NCAA. But, as Will says, it’s not clear to me that changing all of that would actually end up changing the structure of football training all that fundamentally. There are currently minor-league and sei-professional football leagues – they just don’t end up being the choice of the most talented players, so they don’t get any attention.

            And as Tod says, the reason for this is cultural. Baseball developed a minor league system (although a large part of its talent is drafted out of the college game), whereas college football is at least as much a apart of our sports culture, a perhaps even more venerated one, than is professional football itself. Check out the first half hour of the movie Leatherheads, for example (or I suppose you could, you know, do some actual research, but I’m not quite sure why you would, since George Clooney was kind enough to put it all right there for us on film…anyway, I jest).

            I mean I guess what I’m getting at is that asking the utilitarian question as to why this or that isn’t always really on point, when the justification is cultural to begin with. And if there is a cultural fact in American spectator sports culture, it’s that college football is just a big honking deal, whatever you think about the efficacy of that fact. I happen to think that some of the benefits of the structures that have developed around that cultural fact have been somewhat under-accounted in the recent focus on their evident failings and shortcomings. But in terms of the fundamental question, Why college football?, it’s really pretty simple. College football because… College Football! It’s what we do, evidently. To some extent, it’s its own justification, take it or leave it – and you can certainly leave it. Point is, no one’s offering an efficacy-based defense of the institution’s very existence, and at the same time, practically no defender of the institution outside of the actual current administrators of the institution’s governing bodies actually opposes thoroughgoing reform.

            If our sports culture were different and didn’t implicate higher education in the ways it does, especially regarding football, then… our sports culture would be different and wouldn’t implicate higher education they ways it does, especially regarding football. Kids might actually play less football to begin with. Hell, they might even play soccer!

          • …Holy Moses, I didn’t realize how long that comment was.

          • …As if my response wasn’t long enough, there was a whole further question that you raised,DD, that I think Will also points to to some extent, though perhaps he doesn’t see it that way, and that is the question of the in loco parentis function.

            Eighteen-year-olds are not adults. Except that, well, yes, they are. But not intellectually, not emotionally – just legally. Not the majority of them, and that is not meant to apply to just the elite football-playing population. Every September, across the country, millions of parents across the country entrust their poorly-raised, immature young adults to various residential institutions and pay good monrey to them (except in the case of the military, who nevertheless performs the function) to, among many other things, act as surrogate guardians and instructors in the task of becoming vaguely mature young adults. There is no contract signed, but universities unformly accept this role. It is what they do.

            I have never been close to the inside of a major college football program, but my impression is that the ADs and head coaches at those programs take on that function with a special kind of zeal – and are supported in doing so by the overall acceptance of their institutions of the function with respect to the entire student population. Perhaps I am the victim of an elaborate deception that is put on in conspiracy with each other by the universities and athletic departments who protray themselves this way to protect their going concern of exploiting young athletes for institutional monetary gain. But I just simply don’t believe that is the case. Everyone is welcome to dismiss this as naivete, but I don’t believe that it is.

            To me, given this view of things, I just find it highly unlikely that young players would be better off without those layers of institutional support that the university system provides (whatever the benfit of the actual academic experience), instead being thrust into the purely mercenary environment that is modern professional football, whether onto the actual franchises that currently exist, or a new rump league established just for the purpose of eliminating the college athletic paradigm, or at least of making it redundant.

            I take Will’s point that the academic world is not for people who don’t want to be part of it, and perhaps we should consider the idea of eliminating the foral reuirement that players actually be enrolled students, and simply officially embrace this culturally-established dual mission ofor our institutions of higher learning (or militate against such an embrace, whatever our inclinations). But from where I sit, from the perspective of these athletes, I don’t see a system that is failing to protect and nurture their potential (though a system of compensation for injury must – MUST!!! – be instituted forthwith!!!), even if in most cases a certain amount of failure at the traditional academic endeavor is certainly manifest. (Though consider: Andrew Luck, an elite college football player if any exists, had attained a 3.5 GPA in the Architecture program of Stanford University through one semester of his junior year, if I calculate the date of the article correctly as relates his attendance period. There are worse ways to fail.)

  3. Density Duck said == If everybody, from the kid on up, knows that he’s getting drafted the day after commencement, then why wait? Just “provisionally draft” him and have him be part of the organization, training and practicing and learning football, until he’s old enough to legally play.

    The NFL team would have to pay the kid to hang around, maybe a few million a year.

    • Really? Why should the kid expect a million for being, basically, an apprentice football player? He hasn’t done anything to deserve the high life yet. I’m not saying don’t pay him, but I’m saying that “a few million a year” is out of line for someone who hasn’t even dressed for a regular game yet.

      Of course, “millions guaranteed when you start playing” is okay.

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