Two things that happened over the past month have been dismissed as something of throwaway lines, but should have gotten more attention. First was the term coined or at least restated by NCAA President Mark Emmert that student-athletes are “pre-professionals.” Second was Southern California athletics director Pat Haden encouraging schools to recognize and even embrace the professional aspirations of their student-athletes:
“The discussion was, ‘Hey, we’re kidding ourselves if we don’t believe in our heart that every one of these guys wants to go to the NFL or NBA,’ ” Haden said. “I have been one that often starts with a negative, to say, ‘Hey, your odds of going to the NFL are remote.’
“That’s not what they want to hear. If they’re going to trust us … we’re going to have to think how they think.”
It’s not the complete 180-degree turn to professional student-athletes that many find the only fair system of intercollegiate athletics. But it shouldn’t be downplayed that the president of the NCAA is using the word “professional” in any way to describe student-athletes, prefixes or not. Meanwhile, faced with the most difficult environment for operating anything amateur in the country, USC’s Haden figured out carrots can be used, in addition to the normal sticks.
Focusing on the small fraction of the 400,000 student-athletes that will go pro in sports puts the NCAA’s mission in somewhat different light. While it seems hypocritical for President Emmert to call student-athletes pre-professionals then repeat his loathing of the idea of paying student-athletes, the two ideas can be reconciled quite easily. There are a group of student-athletes who will become professional athletes. But not yet. The NCAA’s educational mission is fulfilled by preparing them to make this transition. But the NCAA’s amateur nature prevents the preparation from including schools providing a salary to student-athletes.
As an aside, Emmert’s “not on my watch” stance against paying student-athletes is as much a statement of personal philosophy as it is recognition of inescapable fact. If the NCAA is a professional sports organization, the Association will have changed a great deal. It’s unlikely that organization will still be led by someone whose primary experience is in higher education administration.
The goal then is not to professionalize student-athletes, but to prepare them to become professionals. An essential part of preparing student-athletes (or students for that matter) to become professionals is to provide them with a way out of college into professional life. This is one area that needs attention by the NCAA membership.
The NCAA’s amateurism rules are about choice. Whenever a regulation is added to Bylaw 12 that makes it an amateurism violation to do something, a question must be asked. Is the activity good enough evidence that an amateur athlete is deciding to give up their amateur status? Until the NCAA makes widespread use of foolproof polygraph tests (unlikely in the foreseeable future), documentable facts need to drive the determination of who is and isn’t an amateur.
This theory has long underpinned Bylaw 18.104.22.168:
Bylaw 22.214.171.124 – Draft List.
After initial full-time collegiate enrollment, an individual loses amateur status in a particular sport when the individual asks to be placed on the draft list or supplemental draft list of a professional league in that sport, even though: (Revised: 4/25/02 effective 8/1/02)
- The individual asks that his or her name be withdrawn from the draft list prior to the actual draft;
- The individual’s name remains on the list but he or she is not drafted; or
- The individual is drafted but does not sign an agreement with any professional athletics team.
Bylaw 126.96.36.199 is then softened through a number of exceptions that essentially allow a student-athlete to enter a draft once during their career, so long as they remove themselves shortly thereafter.
It’s the word “asks” that creates many of the problems with the NCAA’s approach to professional drafts. The NBA and NFL require student-athletes with eligibility remaining to declare for the draft. This arises partially from the origins of underclassmen entering the NBA draft, when they had to demonstrate “hardship” to the league office.
Major League Baseball on the other hand doesn’t require that you “ask” to be in the draft. If you meet MLB’s draft eligibility rules, you are available for selection. The fact that being drafted by an MLB team is not an amateurism violation makes sense. Otherwise MLB teams could ruin the amateur status of student-athletes without any action by the student-athlete.
It’s what happens next in baseball that creates problems. After being drafted, student-athletes attempt to negotiate a professional contract. They often hire professional advisors to assist in this process. These advisors are almost always agents acting in an advising capacity, with fee structures identical to player representation agreements.
Major League Soccer further breaks the logic by flipping the draft and the negotiation in the league’s single-entity structure. Underclassmen first attempt to negotiate a contract, and if successful they are entered into the available player pool in the MLS SuperDraft.
To summarize, it is a violation to go through a draft if you decided you want to be in it. But it isn’t a violation in some cases if you are drafted and then attempt to negotiate the greatest possible compensation for your athletic skills. And it isn’t a violation to attempt that negotiation in order to enter the draft.
The fact that this is unfair to some student-athletes is secondary. Most important is that entering a professional draft is not sufficient evidence that you want to give up your collegiate eligibility. Entering a draft and deciding any contract offered would not be worth leaving college is no more or less an indication of a student-athlete’s intent to professionalize themselves than deciding a contract offer is not sufficient to leave college and enter the draft in the first place.
In essence, the draft rules are not performing the function that every amateurism rule must perform. They are not giving us good enough evidence that a student-athlete has decided to give up their eligibility. Drafts should be treated as the logical conclusion of inquiring about a student-athlete’s market value, a process permitted by Bylaw 188.8.131.52.
Arguments against the NCAA’s draft rules and efforts to strengthen them like Proposal 2010-24 center around making sure that student-athletes have sufficient information to decide when to drop the “pre” from “pre-professional.” And that’s a valid and important concern. But more important is ensuring that student-athletes know what actions will cause them to lose their amateur status and ensuring that those actions are well-grounded in basic NCAA principles.
The opinions expressed on this blog are the author’s and the author’s alone, and are not endorsed by the NCAA or any NCAA member institution or conference. This blog is not a substitute for a compliance office.