One of the most common criticisms of the NCAA is that it is (or has been for a long time), the minor league for the NFL and the NBA. With no youth or developmental system at all in professional basketball and football, it is left to college athletics to develop players after they leave high school.
That raises intense, heated debate about the responsibility of the NCAA and its members, given that the major leagues have as little or maybe even less interest in providing a professional option for 18–23 year olds. But it also raises a different and more important question of what the NCAA’s responsibility is to those players for their development.
Because one of the best arguments against the idea that the NCAA is operating the NFL and NBA’s developmental leagues is that the NCAA seems wholly uninterested in developing professional athletes. Sure, plenty of professional athletes come out of college athletics, not just in sports with no other options. And sure, some programs have a huge pipeline to the pro ranks. But all of this is in spite of many of the NCAA’s rules rather than because of them.
Seasons are generally short, with some sports have far too few games and some sports having far too many against too inconsistent a level of competition. Practice time with coaches is tightly restricted, and often has to cede to games when the schedule gets congested. And in the offseason, there is little or no time to develop skills.
Instead, NCAA rules regarding playing and practice seasons are designed to provide as high a level of a competitive experience to student-athletes without an unacceptable level of disruption to the academic experience. Rather than professional athletes, the rules are focused on creating national champions and college graduates.
This does help some student-athletes become professional athletes due to the sheer volume of athletes who get an opportunity to compete at a high level. But the process is haphazard. Defenders of the NBA’s age limit (and to a lesser extent the NFL’s) point to failed pro careers that started to early. But how many potential pro careers are ruined by the athlete not getting the intensive training and maybe even competition at a consistently elite level?
You could run college athletics as a developmental league, with longer seasons, fewer games against higher levels of competition, and more incentives for producing pros than for winning games. And it would not be a revolutionary idea to provide an education and training in a discipline that the vast majority of students will never make a living from (see: many performing and arts majors).
But the best musicians are produced in conservatories and the best actors come from performing arts schools. A university can develop and produce talented entertainers, but it would be hard to argue that the specialized environment doesn’t have a number of advantages a university never will.
The fight over pay-for-play and academic standards is part of a larger discussion about what we do with athletes between the ages of about 12 and 22. To come up with an answer, we need an answer to this question: How important is going to high school and college with their peer group for professional athletes? Do they have to reach those milestones at the normal ages to get the benefits? Do they have to go to traditional educational institutions? Or is simply getting the education at some point the key?
If it is important, then the onus maybe on universities, as institutions that are part of the public trust, to provide this type of training and increase access to college for elite developing athletes. But if not, it might be time to seriously question why we insist on hammering a square peg into a round hole.