Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Slaughter of the Sacred Cows

I really do apologize for the fact that we've had four posts in as many days on the PSU scandal, but I wanted to react to the reactions to the sanctions handed down by the NCAA.

Current players are being recruited by other schools.  Before going any further, because I can't resist this kind of thing, CALLED IT.

This is already causing pearl clutching amongst both fans and pundits.  My god, how unseemly!  How dare these jackals?!  My response:  good for them, and good for the players.  This is how our world works, this is college football as a minor league sport that doesn't compensate its players.  Life sucks, get a helmet.

1) If you didn't have a problem with the ruling that players are allowed to transfer without sitting, then why do you have a problem with schools allowing those players to make more informed decisions on where to go?  Before you say that's putting lipstick on the recruiting pig, what other means are they supposed to use?  The players deserve to be allowed to jump a sinking ship, and I don't blame the life boats for holding up signal flares.  For players trying to decide whether to go to USC versus Illinois, for example, it's in the player's best interests to know which one would give him more playing time or a scholarship.  Yes, the recruiting school is acting out of self interest.  So what?  This isn't a zero sum game.  The recruiting school can benefit by getting a good player, and the player can benefit by getting more play time, or having a chance to play in bowl games, thereby getting more exposure for a possible NFL jaunt.  That both sides benefit is a positive.

2) I don't hear a hue and cry over high school recruitment.  Schools pay scouts to go to high schools and report on players.  Players get trips to campus and put up for a weekend, trotted around campus by a hostess and wooed on the glories that will be theirs if they only commit, commit, commit.  Hell, high school recruiting is a business that transcends the schools themselves into multiple websites like this one, or this one, that evaluate recruits and rank draft classes.  Hell, there's a website that offers a service to help facilitate the process of recruitment for players.  ESPN has a whole section of their website devoted to reporting on it.  Rivals and ESPN will rank each year's draft classes.  If I'm allowed to mix my animal metaphors, the cat's out of the bag on coaches surveying high school talent like cattle at auction.  People not connected to the high schools or the colleges make a profit on reporting on it, it's that big.  Before we all get the vapors over this happening on a college campus, let's remind ourselves of the bigger meat market going on at the blue chip level.

3) As soon as the punishment was handed down, the point was raised that it punished the athletes more than the school.  Well, then let the students leave.  They aren't hurt at all, they get to move on to greener pastures.

No, I think a lot of this is coming from the idea that it's pulling a curtain aside on the little man working the levers of the great and powerful Student-Athlete mythos we've constructed over the decades that college football became a billion dollar enterprise.  We're supposed to think players should and will stick by their school through thick and thin.  We're supposed to admire those that tough it out in the face of sanctions and/or lucrative pro contracts to finish that degree and serve the college proudly, to become part of a proud tradition and alma mater that will always stand by each other.  Bullshit.

In this economy, a college degree and a dollar won't get you a cup of coffee at Starbucks.  Neither will that degree get you a job at Starbucks if you don't already have 2-4 years of professional coffee pouring (my bad, barista) experience.  Unemployment for college graduates is higher than the national average, 10.4% in 2010 and 9.4% in 2011, with underemployment sitting at over 19%.  Wages fell 5.4% for such graduates from 2000 to 2011.  Average student loan debt is over $25,000.  The National Association of Colleges and Employers reports that for 2012 the average starting salary for a college graduate that actually found a job averaged across all industries is $42,000.  That's with business grads pulling up the educators and humanities.  Meanwhile, NFL minimum salaries under the newest CBA have actually increased by $55,000, to $375,000 for rookies and even more for veterans.  Look at that again, the salary increase for rookie players, with or without a degree, even if they were UNDRAFTED, is more than the average salary of college graduates going into business, or science, or mathematics, or engineering, or computer programming, or the education of our children.

Now, I don't begrudge the players making that money, I really don't.  As long as we are willing to shell out billions of dollars in ticket sales, concessions, and ad revenue for those tv spots, the players deserve their share of the pie.  But the idea that a player that has the opportunity to play in the NFL is better off foregoing that money in order to finish his education is an idea we seriously need to consign to the dustbin.  Undrafted, journeyman NFL players at the bottom of the roster make more than doctors and lawyers and some entrepreneurs.  They'd be crazy to leave that money on the table.

But Mike, you can't play football forever, especially with injuries.  Okay fine, then you take all that money you've made and go finish your degree.  Trust me, the college will take you back.  They'll take your money and finish off that piece of paper that won't get you a job at Starbucks.  Or you know, retire on your investments.  Open a small business like a car dealership or a restaurant.

But Mike, some of these players will blow all that money and not prudently invest it?  And so will normal college graduates.  Having a college degree doesn't prevent massive credit card debt or underwater mortgages.

Now, I'm not saying college education is worthless, but its value has been shown to be not worth the sticker price these past few years.  And what is college ultimately intended to be but a preparation for a career.  If you can make a more lucrative career by leaving early, then you've gotten all you need out of college.  You don't need to spend the time or the money completing it if you can make more money elsewhere.  Be wary that the folks telling you otherwise aren't in fact the same people that would benefit disproportionately from your talents if they manage to keep you, like a college football program keeping its Heisman Trophy winning quarterback so they can go to another multi-million dollar bowl game.

Take, for example, Matt Leinart and Alex Smith.  In 2004 Leinart and Smith competed against each other for the Heisman Trophy, which Leinart won.  Leinart and the Trojans then went on to win the national title.  That spring the San Francisco 49ers had the #1 draft, and the dynasty built by Joe Montana and Steve Young was poised to take Leinart #1 and pay him ALL the money.  Leinart instead chose to delay coming out.  He opted to return for a 5th year at USC, taking ballroom dancing to satisfy the two credits he needed to complete his sociology degree.

The 49ers drafted Alex Smith and signed him to a $49.5 million contract that included $24 million in guarantees.  Smith was their starter through these last playoffs (where the 49ers reached the NFC Championship) and has resigned for another three years.

Leinart went on to see his teammate Reggie Bush win the Heisman in 2005, and then saw Vince Young run over his defense to win the national title over Leinart's Trojans.  Leinart was drafted 10th by the Arizona Cardinals, and became the summer's longest hold-out in pursuit of a contract.  Ultimately that contract was signed, and on paper appeared to be worth more than Smith's:  $50.8 million.  However only $14 million of that was guaranteed as opposed to Smith's $24 million.  The rest was based on performance benchmarks and play time.  Leinart was promptly put on the bench behind Kurt Warner.  He eventually started 11 games that season, then bounced between the starting spot, the injured reserve list, and the bench (largely the bench in 2008 and 2009).  In 2010 Leinart was cut from the team, and picked up by the Texans as a back-up.  Two years later he was cut by Houston, and has signed for the Oakland Raiders for the coming season.  The move to Houston from Arizona alone is estimated to have cost him $2.5 million.

Now injuries happen, and Smith himself has been off the starting rotation in San Francisco and was forced to renegotiate his contract in 2009.  Without the tax returns or copies of the contracts in front of me I can't do a breakdown of who has made more money since 2004, but going into next season Smith's $24 million contract as the starter for a team that is a legitimate Super Bowl contender seems to weigh in his favor as having had more professional success despite having been the lesser prospect when he exited college.

So, in an effort to tie all these varied ramblings into a semblance of a final, overarching point, I think coaches informing PSU players that they are desired is perfectly ethical within the bounds of current practice and rules.  It is also providing a valuable service to the players by keeping them informed of their options.  The players have no obligation to the university to stay, and it may very well be in their best interest if they have the talent and desire to play in the NFL.  If they can make it to the NFL, they are better suited to do so than sticking around ANY academic institution to obtain ANY degree, and they should go at the earliest opportunity to minimize injury and maximize earning potential.  They can always come back later.  If that offends your sensibilities, you need to re-check your numbers.  The data gravitates towards players looking out for their own athletic prowess, not sticking by an academic institution that can't guarantee them greater success.  That individual players might do so may please our yearnings for some bygone, halcyon days of mythical yore where gentleman scholars competed on fields of valor before setting aside such childish antics en route to adopting positions as titans of industry.  In reality they're passing up more lucrative opportunities so that we can tell a story about how loyalty trumps greed.  In the end though, it's just that, a story, and once the column those sports writers glowingly hand their editors is consigned to the dust bin of history, so will be the careers of those individuals who marched off into ignominy for the sake of our ephemeral praise and the vindication of our fables.

No comments:

Post a Comment