SBJ/September 12-18, 2011/Opinion

Can ‘major junior’ program for football cure NCAA’s ills?

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Traditionally, the start of the college football season is a time for excitement. It’s hard not to get swept up in eager anticipation of a successful season. However, as the opening games of 2011 have now come and gone, it’s fair to suggest that the primary feeling as first kickoff commenced this year was one of relief.
Between the controversy at Ohio State University that dominated headlines as summer began and the more recent scandal at the University of Miami, it seems as if talk of who might be left standing tall at the end of the season has been drowned out by talk of college football’s ills. A number of cures for those ills have been proposed in recent weeks, but none of them truly addresses the root of the problem.
The NFL is the only major professional sport in North America whose sole avenue of development is the NCAA. Baseball prospects can sign with an MLB team right out of high school and go into the farm system to develop (to say nothing of MLB team-sponsored academies in Latin America). Since 2006, the NBA has required that players be out of high school for at least one year before entering the NBA draft, but as Milwaukee Bucks guard Brandon Jennings demonstrated when he played in Italy three years ago, that doesn’t necessarily mean college basketball. Hockey is getting more and more talent from the NCAA, but the majority of North American players still come from the “major junior” teams of the Canadian Hockey League.
Football, of course, doesn’t have MLB’s vast minor league system, and as a uniquely American sport, playing in Europe isn’t an option. The major junior system doesn’t exist for football, but in light of recent events, it’s worth wondering whether the sport, the athletes and indeed the NCAA might not be better off if it did.
This may sound odd, given that the five Division I men’s hockey conferences have set up the group College Hockey Inc. to promote the advantages of the NCAA over the CHL and employ former NHLPA Executive Director Paul Kelly to make the case for college hockey throughout North America. However, while college hockey programs across the country may battle CHL teams for top young players, the fact remains that the existence of a semi-pro alternative to college hockey weeds out the majority of players who are uninterested in a college education, the sort of players who often cause the biggest problems at big-time football and basketball powerhouses. Giving a similar alternative to football prospects focused solely on NFL futures could rid NCAA programs of the headaches associated with those players.
One might ask, naturally, what will become of these players should their NFL dreams fail to materialize, as most do. The teams of the CHL offer players education packages commensurate with years of service. The packages cover college tuition, books and other expenses, and are available at the conclusion of a player’s CHL career if he does not sign a pro contract. Critics point out (rightly so) that this does little good when a player opts instead to kick around the minors for a few years, ultimately ending his career at an age where attending college full time is unfeasible, especially without the financial support he would have had at the end of his CHL tenure. However, the minor leagues available to football players hardly rival hockey’s multitiered system, making it much more likely that a football player at the end of his major junior career without NFL prospects would collect his education package. Furthermore, with the knowledge that he won’t make a living playing football, such a player would probably devote himself to his studies more than he would if he were majoring in football at a big-time program under the current system.
What, then, of those football programs? Would they not be weakened by the absence of top stars? Perhaps, but it would be a small price to pay for a college football program that a university can be truly proud of. As the old chestnut goes, college football is more about the name on the front of the jersey than the name on the back. Last season’s Michigan-Ohio State game would have been no less an event had Terrelle Pryor spurned the Buckeyes for some semi-pro alternative. Whether he’s remembered as a national championship hero or a figure of scandal, Cam Newton will never mean as much to Auburn as Toomer’s Oaks. So much of college football’s appeal is tied to the experience — traditions, fight songs, pageantry — that the absence of players who are singularly focused on preparing for the NFL would likely make little difference to the fans but a world of difference to the schools.
In truth, the establishment of such an alternative may not be feasible. Unlike the CHL, whose Memorial Cup dates to 1919, a new major junior football system may have difficulty competing with the history and tradition of the NCAA’s most storied programs. However, in the midst of a nationwide debate about how to fix college football, it’s worth speculating about a solution that strikes much closer to the heart of the problem. n
Elliot Olshansky (eolshansky1782@gmail.com) writes for New York Hockey Journal and covers college hockey and lacrosse for NCAA.com.
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