When does the smell of bigtime college basketball and football get so bad that extreme and improbable solutions become sensible subjects for discussion?
How about now?
Why shouldn't the National Football League and the National Basketball Association start moving toward substantial minor league systems, along the lines of those employed by major league baseball and the National Hockey League?
For decades, the NFL and NBA have gotten a free ride. Colleges have been their minor leagues. Maybe it's time that changed -- not overnight, but over the next decade. Doesn't the possibility deserve inspection?
First, let's talk about why baseball and hockey's systems are much better. Then, we'll respond to the knee-jerk lament that, "It'll never happen." Finally, for perspective, let's hear from Abe Pollin and Edward Bennett Williams, men who have owned pro teams in two sports -- Pollin in basketball and hockey, Williams in football and baseball.
From the point of view of the athlete, the university system and society in general, quality minor leagues are a proper and perhaps necessary complement to college sports. Athletes who aren't qualified college candidates should have a realistic career choice while remaining athletes. Not to mention cash in hand.
In baseball, a high school graduate has the choice of being paid in the minors. He may even get a $50,000 bonus if he's "blue chip."
One-third of all major leaguers never got to college. Many others only went to college or junior college for a year or two. Also, many big leaguers like Reggie Jackson, Jim Palmer, Tom Seaver, Ken Singleton and Steve Garvey got their college degrees -- diplomas with meaning behind them. Academics were important to them. At schools like USC, Arizona State and Miami, serious baseball and bona fide study can coexist. The amount of "scandal" generated by college baseball is tiny.
In other words, baseball's system accidentally reflects the real world. Whether you love books, hate them or haven't made up your mind yet, there's a place for you. And your chances of making the majors are roughly the same whichever route you chose. Just as important, you don't become contaminated by the view that everybody's for sale, learning is a con and the key to success is to be the crook who isn't caught.
Instead, you get paid -- although not a great deal -- and get thrown into adult life. Balance your checkbook and do your own laundry, son. You see the world at the small-town, back-of-the-bus level -- which isn't a bad education. It's a tough, sobering, only semiglamorous existence.
Still, the baseball bushes are better preparation for the nonacademic jock than the sleek university factory world that gives an athlete a false view of his value, talent and future place in the world. Also, if a player doesn't crack the NFL or NBA within a year or two of leaving college, he's in deep water. In the job market, he can drown quickly if his education was a sham.
By contrast, many a career minor league player such as Earl Weaver or Joe Altobelli decided he'd fit just fine into a town like Elmira or Rochester. The 26-year-old minor leaguer has stature in his burg, and the potential to be hired, which the college football or basketball has-been doesn't enjoy.
Hockey's a little different. The NHL pays several million dollars a year to help subsidize Canada's 39 junior teams on which 16- to-20-year-olds play; they're eligible for the NHL draft at 18. Also, NHL teams pay several hundred thousand dollars per club toward the salaries of minor league players on 13 teams in the American Hockey League. The Washington Capitals, for example, "share" a team at Binghamton with the Hartford Whalers.
"Junior leagues and minor leagues in hockey have proven to be a very positive system for the athletes. It's been a positive force in their whole lives," said Capitals owner Pollin. "They come out of it with a certain realistic sense of responsibility." "Our minor league teams cost us about $4 million a year," owner Williams of the Baltimore Orioles said. "Ours aren't even producing very well and they still cost a fortune." The number of minor league levels needed in football and basketball probably is closer to hockey than baseball. The average NHL teams pay less than $1 million a year to junior leagues and the minors.
Obviously, NFL and NBA teams aren't anxious to spend such sums on minor league teams that probably always would operate in the shadow of college sports. And NCAA schools want to keep every last bit of their cash and prestige.
How can we make these folks an offer they can't refuse?
Why not use a stick on the colleges, since they are, for the most part, in the public sector and subject to legislation and regulation. Then let's find a carrot to motivate the private-sector pros.
If college recruiting was throttled to the point of near nonexistence with draconian rules, would any innocents be slain? What sillier waste of money does this country witness than the courting, largely at public expense, of extra-large high school children by college coaches? Also, if we put the worst university cheaters on 10-year probations, would that be unwise?
Could the distribution of TV money be incrementally changed so that small-time programs get far more of the pie while the Georgias get much less? If Georgia wants the pride and fame of an 11-0 football team, more power to 'em. But why should they get big bucks, too?
As for gate receipts, who says a state university should get to keep them? Why shouldn't they go into a state-wide acedemic and/or athletic fund to improve the quality of microscopes at a high school or shoulder pads at a junior high? Many athletic departments have made themselves private corporations. Couldn't laws be changed to prevent this? If the dollars at stake in big-time sports shrank dramatically, wouldn't abuses diminish, too?
The time may be right for such drastic notions. Some people even dare to hope that the Jan Kemp case will start a powerful movement to end academic double standards for athletes.
The really tough job is figuring out how to bring minor leagues into existence. Would it be possible to create tax breaks for pro teams that subsidize minor league clubs? After all, Congress has created sweetheart legislation for leagues throughout this century.
Perhaps it's more realistic to hope that, if NCAA rules were properly strict, large numbers of fine athletes would be "unattached" after high school, as they now are in baseball. Wouldn't money be found for "player developement" -- i.e., minor leagues -- if NFL and NBA executives believed that star players were there to be groomed?
Lay these various scenarios before Pollin and he's fairly enthusiastic. His first reaction is, "Why not?" Nothing else is working. He'd like to see more of the hockey experience incorporated into basketball.
Do the same with Williams and, from his baseball versus football experience, he's fairly pessimistic. What hits him first is the overwhelming popularity of college football. Who would pay to go to minor league football with NCAA games on TV in every little town? Are people really so sick of college corruption that they'd get behind the whole range of initiatives needed to deflate big-time college sports and inflate a minor league system?
All of this is not a question for a day. We'll chew it for years.
For now, instead of saying that the problems of big-time college sports are inherent in a system that's defies fundamental change, let's take a slightly different tack. Let's say that these abuses -- which offend us more deeply every year -- are bred into a system we don't yet have the will to change.