In the past I have been pretty hard on the NCAA. In a book that I wrote assailing big-time college football that was excerpted in SI (Oct. 2, 1989), I stated, "Let me tell you how I feel on a very primitive, visceral level about the NCAA: I hate it."
Nice, you say. Subtle.
O.K., so I don't keep things bottled up inside. I'm prone to overstatement. But I don't back down from something else I said on the same page of the book, that there is "something about an organization that employs a lot of people whose duty is to govern others with whom they have almost nothing in common that irritates me no end."
But a person can't criticize unless he is also prepared to praise, and I must now confess that the same bloated, priggish, hypocritical, dunderheaded organization that has suspended athletes for things as harmless as accepting free T-shirts, while letting coaches make fortunes from sneaker endorsements, has abruptly done something so progressive, so reasonable, so just plain right that I kneel in obeisance.
Simply, the NCAA hierarchy is considering rules changes that would allow an underclassman in any NCAA sport to enter any pro sports draft at any time during his collegiate career, negotiate with pro teams and then resume his college career if he doesn't sign.
A detailed proposal will be presented to the NCAA Council by next spring for approval before it can be submitted to a final vote by the full NCAA membership in January 1992. Both the NCAA bigwigs and the rank and file really ought to rubber-stamp this idea when it reaches them. The proposal is remarkable for being not only an acknowledgment that the NCAA has in the past acted unfairly toward football and basketball players with pro potential, but also that modern times have arrived and—cowabunga!—the NCAA can adapt and live with them.
As it stands, a baseball player can be drafted after finishing high school, and if he does not sign with a major league team or enlist an agent, he is free to play college ball. He can be drafted again after three years or after his 21st birthday, yet still retain his eligibility if he does not turn pro. A hockey player can also complete his collegiate career, even if he has been drafted by a National Hockey League team. But a football or a basketball player must give up his NCAA eligibility if he declares himself ready to be drafted, even if no team actually drafts him. As a result, an underclassman takes a grievous risk when he throws his name into the draft pool.
Like a lot of NCAA rules, the ones governing drafts and eligibility began to take shape in the 1920s, long before the advent of multimillion-dollar signing bonuses and extended contracts. Back in the days of Grange and Nagurski, a career in pro football was a lowly pursuit, and pros in the fledgling National Football League earned a pittance. Now, for the most talented players, college is the springboard to riches. As NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue puts it, "How can you prevent a young man from looking to his future?"
You can't, and the new proposal stems in part from the NCAA's desire to avoid lawsuits brought by athletes who feel they are being unlawfully denied the opportunity to test their worth. It also comes from a nascent spirit of decency that has struck certain leaders in college sports. "I don't know how the rule's going to work," says Temple athletic director Charles Theokas, the chairman of the NCAA's pro sports liaison committee. "But it's just time to think about these things. I'll tell you what it is. It's fair."
That it is. If college football players turn pro as freshmen or sucker NFL teams into drafting them high and then don't leave school, it will no doubt make life troublesome for both college coaches in the first instance and NFL general managers in the second. But so what? College sports should not exist to make coaches happy or to be minor leagues for professional sports.
The NFL can come up with various solutions—supplemental drafts, the retaining of player rights, etc.—to preserve its precious parity even if it does get stiffed by a few fickle flankers. The concerns of the pro leagues are not those of the universities, even though, as Theokas says, "There is no reason for us to be anti-NFL or anti-NBA, or vice versa." The proposal, he notes, is simply "pro-student athlete."
It's a proposal that will allow college players to use the free enterprise system in the same way that the system has always used them, to capitalize on the entertainment value skilled athletes have in this sports-crazy society. It's a rule that will put athletes on a par with the computer-science whizzes, music students, drama majors and other collegians who can weigh pro careers without losing their scholarships or eligibility for student activities. It's a rule that can get some of those sham students who are simply using their schools as sports training camps out into the real world where they belong.
And it's a rule that—if passed—will earn at least one sportswriter's enthusiastic applause.