One of the biggest recent successes of the NCAA is that the message is finally getting across that there is no such thing as “The NCAA”. There is an organization headquartered in Indianapolis with those initials. But when it comes to how college athletics is regulated and controlled, the national office is just one part of a larger network that is populated largely by member schools but which also includes conferences and coaches associations.
Now that the NCAA has convinced many to zoom in and take a closer look at the actual structure of college athletics, the next goal for the NCAA should be to convince the public to zoom out and look at the NCAA as simply one part of an even larger system. That system, messy at its best and corrupt at its worse, is the one that takes millions of children from their first experience playing sports and eventually produces a few hundred or few thousand world class athletes.
Plans for significant NCAA reform generally make two assumptions. First, that college athletics should continue as the primary method for developing professional or Olympic athletes. And second, that the effect of changes in college athletics on youth athletics can or should be ignored. The result is that many reform plans are like engineers tasked with making a car go faster, but only by focusing on the engine, not the entire vehicle.
College athletics, as currently constructed, has a lot of advantages. It broadens the talent base. It requires athletes to make progress toward a career as a non-athlete. It funds a high level of coaching and support for many athletes through university subsidies and fan interest that is unrivaled in what is ultimately a U–23 youth league.
It has its drawbacks though. Mixing class and practice limits the amount of time athletes can train. Those large subsidies come at a time when many universities are strapped for cash. Scholastic and intercollegiate sports are almost universally tied to a system of amateurism as well.
Because the NCAA is often viewed as representative of all athletic development in the US, a lot of the failings of our development system are attributed to our peculiar attachment to high-level sports run by schools and the traditional attachment to amateurism that has come along with it. But across the pond they’re struggling with the same issues.
The Football League has agreed to adopt the Elite Player Performance Plan, which was developed by the Premier League (they are actually separate entities). The plan takes the current two designations of youth football teams (Academy and Centre of Excellence) and breaks it into four levels. Level 1 will require a budget of at least £ 2.5 million and 18 full-time staff members. In exchange for that investment, clubs have no limits on the time young players can spend in training (currently limited to 3–5 hours per week) and no limit on where players can come from (currently limited to within a 60–90 minute commute from the training ground).
That comes along with a standardized compensation system when youth players move to new clubs, with much lower initial payments and higher payments if the player becomes a productive professional for the first team.
The plan was initially met with a furious reaction from the smaller clubs, who described a parade of horribles that should sound familiar to college sports fans. Bigger clubs would gobble up all the young players, either by scouring the country for schoolboys or poaching players from the smaller clubs on the cheap. Getting passed over by a big club early would be more harmful to a youngster’s pro prospects, so the fear is agents will become prevalent for nine and ten year-olds. And a valuable source of income for some teams will go away as it will be much harder to be a feeder club, one that develops good young pros, then selling them to the richer teams.
The questions are the same in England and the US. Where should potential pros get the bulk of their playing time? Should talent be widely distributed or concentrated in a few large organizations? Is playing for a local team in meaningful games better for development that the advantages that the big boys can provide? What is the appropriate time for young athletes to start thinking about agents and contracts, salary and bonuses?
All those questions need to be asked here directly instead of through coming up with ideas about how the NCAA should operate. The NCAA is just one piece of the puzzle in the career of an elite athlete. It is time to think about that whole career and the NCAA’s place in it. Or at the very least to think about how changes to the NCAA affect the rest of that path.
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.