A record 90 third year college football players declared for the NFL draft this year. This continues a decade long trend. Some reflects bad information from agents out to make a buck; but many of these third year football players are making good decisions based upon clear NFL panel information. As a college educator this makes sense to me while the basketball one and done violates everything college athletics aspires to be.
Why the difference?
The sometimes-shaky moral foundation of college athletics depends upon viewing the individual athlete as a student and a learner both in an academic and athletic setting. The claim that athletes learn in the classroom and experience college enrichment grounds the claim of college athletics to be an educational endeavor. The trajectory of learning aims at earning a degree that certifies that learning and prepares a student for life and career beyond college walls. To be clear, as most college graduates know, the degree does not guarantee a job.
The great challenge to give reality to this moral claim lies in ensuring that the individuals who play college sports get a real education in the classroom. Most athletes enter college identifying as athletes first. They devote immense hours to playing the sport they love and 98% will never play professional sport. In basketball and football many are academically underprepared for college social and academic life. Lots of studies demonstrate that an individual who plays intercollegiate athletics needs to evolve their self-understanding and see themselves as students and persons as well as athletes to succeed in the classroom and graduate.
This evolution for athletes takes time and involves a bridge period where many young highly recruited individuals resist classroom culture. Young athletes can struggle with the transition from being lionized athletes to being competitive athletes and going to class especially if the classroom has been a realm of failure and under-achievement. It takes about two plus years for most athletes to make this transition.
For the ultra-elite baseball and football players who are now leaving after three years, I believe that colleges and students have demonstrated good faith effort to be true to that mission of college athletics as a full educational endeavor. This can be the right decision for the student who has a reasonable skill and an informed chance to try the professional life.
Let me explain why.
1. Most third year students who play football or baseball at Division 1 schools have taken regular summer classes for three years and have made serious academic and reflective progress in college. College football players at division 1 schools all start by taking summer school bridge classes to earn credit and prepare them for the cultural and academic shock of college academics. Three years of summer classes plus regular loads lead to strong junior status for many students. Many senior football players already have enough credit to graduate.
a. Class attendance and progress towards degree Athletes pushed by coaches to keep players eligible, get them educated and build a backlog of credit if a student struggles in one term. If athletes do not meet these standards, they cannot play.
b. In the schools that invest money in academic support, this means the vast majority of third year college football and baseball players have had over 100 hours of college class credit and are well on their way to degrees. I need to emphasize that this whole approach depends upon the reality that schools provide real academic screening at admission and honest and professional academic support to the student while they play college sports.
c. Coaches’ and school incentives are now tied to graduation rates and progress toward degrees so the self-interest of the school and coaches supports this press to take academics seriously.
d. By the third year many individuals who come to college identifying as athletes begin to see themselves as students and persons beyond athletes.
2. This identity change enables them to succeed better in the classroom and be more prepared for life beyond college. It is the best predictor of whether a student will stay in and graduate even after their eligibility is over. Leaving aside the less than 800 players who will be drafted for 3-5 year careers in professional ball, the other 25,000 in Division 1 & 2 football players have reasonable chance to graduate with a meaningful college degree.
3. To me as an educator, this means the student who is an athlete has gone to class, met professors, learned the basic academic skills and read and written papers as well as started on learning to think critically about themselves and life. The foundations for a reflective life and a richer life as well as a long-term professional life have been laid.
At this point if a football or baseball player believe on the basis of good evidence, and the NFL and MLB have strong and accurate panels to predict when they will be drafted, then I think it makes sense to make themselves eligible for the draft.
This three year experience with progress towards degree plus regular summer school and academic and psychological support is fundamentally different from the 1 and done life of college basketball players.
These one and done students barely touch classes; few even attend classes the second term as they make a run for the NCAA tournament and travel and train to get ready for the professional draft. The one and done types may end up finishing something resembling classes to protect the graduate rates of the schools. I believe it is the height of hypocrisy for the NCAA or colleges to pretend that any serious college impact occurs for these players.The basketball players face a bind because they are ready to enter the professional leagues after high school. The NBA, however, for labor reasons will not let them. They have nowhere to go but college during that one-year hiatus.
Colleges cannot stop one and done aspirants from coming to school because it would violate too many laws. This gives the NBA and player’s union get a perfect deal, but one and done does absolutely nothing for the academic or social or intellectual life of the one and done players. The vast majority of them will never finish college and after their 3-5 years will end up with no professional future, and one half will be broke three years after they retire without a college degree or training to fall back upon. The best colleges and NCAA can do is built up the high school requirements to ensure some level of academic achievement at earlier levels and not let low academic players play their first year.
In baseball and soccer with their minor league systems, athletes have a choice to become professionals after high school. Those who go to college make a conscious choice about creating a college career, getting a college educations and playing the sport of their passion as well as preparing for professional careers. Most tennis and golf players have made the choice to forgo turning professional early and use college the same way.
Football has changed radically in the last decade. Ten years ago most college football players redshirted and most draftees sat for two years after being drafted. All that has changed and made three and run a reasonable tactic for third year college football players. Three things have changed in football.
1. The modern conditioning regimes have created physically stronger and more mature players at an earlier age. This conditioning revolution has been supported by the growth of sophisticated coaching has migrated to high school level. In addition 7 by 7 leagues have increased the skill and sophistication of skill players. They come into college ready to start at much higher levels rather than red-shirting as was the case a decade ago. 21-year-old college juniors or red shirt sophomores possess a level of skill and maturity and physical preparedness that transcends the world of 15 years ago. They are ready to play in many cases and leaving for professional ball with three years of classes and academics and academic support makes perfect sense.
2. The NFL game has evolved to converge with the skill sets of advanced college players. Most to top three round draftees are expected to play regularly in their first year. Unheard of ten years ago, professional quarterbacks; skill players and even lineman now regularly start for professional teams. A decade ago the norm would be to sit and wait and grow and develop for two to three years—the modern sophistication of collegiate football coupled with the evolution of the professional game no longer make this necessary.
At the end of three years ultra-elite college football players are ready for professional sports. They may be ready even earlier but from a college point of view, three years in college provides the moral support and justification for the college sports enterprise.
I believe we have done justice to the promise for these players at the end of three years if the college has committed to honest support and real education.
College players have a dream to play in the NFL and this should not be denied if it is consistent with the mission of college athletics as an educational endeavor—again remember we are dealing with very small numbers but very real ones compared to the rest of the college players who will play for four years and have the real chance to get their degrees if they commit and stick to the program with support.
The sheer dangers of football make this decision even more reasonable. Skill players, running backs and receivers know the sheer costs of cumulative hits to their body. Repetitive stress increases the range of costs to their body and their potential life as professionals for the 5 percent of college football players who would be drafted by the NFL.
These ultra elite players have good reason if given good information on draft status to leave early and achieve their dreams and in many cases support their family. I still remember the horrible injuries to Sam Bradford at Texas or Marcus Lattimore at South Carolina when he stayed for his fourth year or what happened to at South Carolina.
Three and done for the ultra elite is a defensible way to approach college, academics, sports and professional possibilities. One and done mocks the enterprise.