Saturday, October 29, 2011

Professional Football's Age Barrier

As of the 2011 college football season, the Big Ten Conference has 12 teams and the Big 12 Conference has ten teams. I point this out because, well, it's funny, but also to provide some perspective, because on the list of the screwiest things about college football right now, the Big Ten/12 situation doesn't even make the top ten (or 12).[1]

For a look at the items at the top of that list, Taylor Branch's aptly-titled Atlantic piece, "The Shame of College Sports", is required reading. This early paragraph is a nice summary of what follows:
For all the outrage, the real scandal is not that students are getting illegally paid or recruited, it’s that two of the noble principles on which the NCAA justifies its existence—“amateurism” and the “student-athlete”—are cynical hoaxes, legalistic confections propagated by the universities so they can exploit the skills and fame of young athletes. The tragedy at the heart of college sports is not that some college athletes are getting paid, but that more of them are not.
I'm also partial to this, by deceased Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko (not really…probably), who skillfully deflates the "but they are getting paid, in the form of an education" argument. And this, by Clay Travis at Outkick the Coverage, which addresses the morality (or—spoiler alert!—lack thereof) of a system that not only forces people with extremely valuable skills to wait at least three years for their first paycheck, but makes sure they remain exposed to potentially career-ending injuries the entire time.

So I'm not going to rehash the argument for overhauling college football to allow the players to share in some way the profits they generate, because the case has largely been made, and I'd just be running up the score. But there's still one lingering piece of the pro-NCAA argument that, as far as I can tell, hasn't been addressed. From a comment on the Outkick the Coverage article:
I agree with most of what you say with the exception of, "The NFL's age restriction is a fundamental restraint of trade that is completely un-American." It is entirely up to the NFL to make rules regarding hiring. That is America. The right for the owner to decide when, whom and if he/she hires someone. The owner of a corporation, partnership, legal entity, etc has rights just as the college player has rights and personal liberties. The player can choose to stop playing college ball and wait for the draft status to open or he can go play in the CFL or [some other professional league]. . . . Are the universities making money off of some of the players? Hell yes, why shouldn't they be? The bottom line is capitalism in it's truest form is about profits, contracts and freedom of choice. The player chooses what he/she wants to do, no one forces them to play college ball.
It's a tough point to argue with, because I'm not sure it's wrong. It might also be the most important point in the entire debate. If 18-to-20-year-old football players really do have a viable pro alternative, then the NCAA is, while still problematic, a fundamentally benevolent organization that does a lot of good for those who choose to keep their amateur status.[2] But if players don't have a viable pro alternative, then they're essentially forced into an adhesion contract where they have to spend at least three years making money for others—receiving in return only the non-negotiable benefit of a college education they may not want, and probably won't be able to take full advantage of anyway—before they can start trying to make money for themselves. In that case, the system is every bit as indefensible as Taylor Branch and others make it out to be.

So I decided to look up the players who joined a professional team rather than attend college. The NFL's rule is well-known—you can't enter the draft until three years after your high school class graduates—but there are other pro football leagues, so at least in theory there are options available. But what kind of money are those players making? How enticing were the scholarship opportunities they passed up, if any? Are they getting attention from NFL scouts?

I went through the leagues that are currently active (NFL Europe, we hardly knew ye), looking over rosters, league rules, and whatever other information I could find.[3] There aren't many, but, sure enough, I did find a handful of athletes who went pro at age 18 or 19. There's Mikkayla Flores of the Cleveland Crush, Ciara McMillan of the Tampa Breeze, and Dominique Oro of the Los Angeles Temptation, to name a few. But if NFL scouts are hanging around at Lingerie Football League games, it's probably for a different reason.

As for the other significant (by which I mean not overwhelmingly insignificant) leagues, here's what I found:

Age Barrier
League Youngest player
(age as of Oct. 29, 2011)
Previous team(s)
Canadian Football League Zack Evans, Saskatchewan Roughriders (21 years, 125 days)

Youngest American:
Javes Lewis, Toronto Argonauts
(21 years, 323 days)
Evans: Regina Thunder (of the CJFL, an amateur junior league for Canadians only)

Lewis: University of Oregon (2008-10)
Arena Football League Will Hill, Arizona Rattlers
(21 years, 237 days)
University of Florida (2008-10)
United Football League Saalim Hakim, Las Vegas Locomotives
(21 years, 271 days)
Palomar CC (2008),
Tarleton State (2009-10)
National Football League Tyron Smith, Dallas Cowboys
(20 years, 322 days)
USC (2008-10)

Aside from the aforementioned LFL, I could only find one professional football league in North America with any players under 21. Oddly enough, it's the NFL.[4]

The NFL is also the only league without a good deal of haziness surrounding its eligibility rules. According to the never-wrong-about-anything New York Times, the CFL has no minimum age.[5] I'm skeptical, especially after going through the team rosters, but I haven't seen an official source that says otherwise. It's a similar story with the AFL and UFL—a number of questionable online sources point to a minimum age of 18 or so, but I can't find anything definitive.

There are, of course, a number of reasons a player with NFL aspirations might not want to join an alternative league, even if that league will have him. To begin with, it's rather pointless to forgo a full scholarship for a miniscule salary in an unstable organization, and, other than the CFL, which pays decent money and isn't going to fold anytime soon, it's nothing but question marks. The AFL had to cancel its entire 2009 season, and upon its return in 2010 player salaries were drastically reduced. The fledgling UFL pays its players around $40,000 a year—not NFL money, but enough to live on, and seemingly more than the league should be able to afford. In related news, the UFL just cancelled the last two weeks of its regular season, and may never return.

And then there are the differences in the game itself. Arena league games are played on a smaller field with rules designed to encourage a faster pace and lots of scoring. CFL games are played on a field the size of Luxembourg with rules that allow this to happen:

But, ultimately, it’s all gridiron football, and anyone who excels at one version has the potential to succeed at another. So why is it so difficult to find even a single player who went pro out of high school? I can think of two possible explanations:
  1. Every talented 18-year-old football player in the country independently made the same decision—to go to college instead of playing for money. And yet, while in college many (though certainly not all) of these players will (a) neglect the academic coursework they voluntarily chose to pursue, (b) accept "improper benefits", jeopardizing their eligibility and exposing their schools to NCAA sanctions (and undermining the initial decision to play on an amateur basis), and (c) leave for the NFL as soon as the rules allow, whether they've graduated or not. Or…
  2. No professional league is interested in signing players right out of high school.
One of those explanations is a bit more plausible than the other.[6]

I'm not arguing that the NCAA or the NFL are somehow illegally restricting competition (though I'm tempted to try), but this is another of the many, many signs that there's something wrong with the system. The term "slavery" has been thrown around, and that's unfortunate, because there's nothing approaching slavery going on, but it certainly looks like the choice isn't between playing as an amateur or as a professional—it's between playing as an amateur or not playing at all.

1. What does this have to do with conservatism? That's a good question, for which I have two answers. First, it's what I feel like writing about, so whatever. And second, what doesn't it have to do with conservatism? From the overly cautious on-field tactics and the attempts to eliminate victimless behavior on dubious moral grounds (e.g. banning certain touchdown celebrations), to the we-know-what's-good-for-these-kids-better-than-they-do paternalism of the college system and the anti-capitalistic shadiness of the NFL's antitrust exemption—virtually everything objectionable about modern conservatism is reflected in football.
2. Of the major American sports, baseball has by far the best system for handling the transition from amateur to professional, for the simple and obvious reason that the players have a choice. This is why nobody complains about college baseball players not getting paid. (Well, that and the relative lack of money in college baseball, which isn't unrelated to the fact that players have a choice.)
3. I made a pretty good effort to be comprehensive, but I didn't obsess over it, and it's certainly possible that I overlooked somebody. There are also a few teams (I'm talking to you, Omaha Nighthawks) that don't have rosters online, along with countless other reasons the available information might be incomplete or wrong. Suffice it to say, I might've missed some things, but I think my overall assessment is pretty solid.
    Oh, and I decided not to worry too much about the various second-tier "indoor football" leagues (for legal reasons, they can't call it arena football), or the Stars Football League, which is totally a real thing. From the SFL's Wikipedia page: "Its inaugural season began June 30, 2011 with two teams; the league phased two more teams into the schedule over the course of the 2011 season to finish the season with four teams." It might not sound like much right now, but they're on pace to have 256 teams by this time in 2013.
4. You can probably figure this out without my help (if you don't know it already), but just to be thorough: Since the NFL defines eligibility relative to a player's high school graduation, there's really no minimum age, and every so often somebody manages to parlay an atypically early graduation into an atypically early NFL debut (most notably Amobi Okoye, who was still 19 when he was drafted in 2007).
5. I'm tempted to write a whole 'nother post about the comments on that Bryce Brown article, because there are some great examples of the bizarre attitudes people have about college sports. Even at the New York Times website, of all places, the idea of an 18-year-old cashing in on a marketable skill—perfectly acceptable in every other (non-criminal) profession—brings out so much inexplicable vitriol. I especially like this one:
Send a kid to the CFL rather than college? The average NFL running back career is just over three years. Then what? Now you have to PAY for college rather than getting it for free.
That's right, after he spends three years in the lucrative world of professional football, making piles and piles of money, he'll have to PAY for college. How will he ever be able to afford it?
6. This isn't a new development, by the way. In the mid-80s the USFL adopted the same eligibility rules as the NFL, which at the time disallowed the signing of players who had yet to use up their college eligibility. (A rather controversial exception was made for Herschel Walker, who was coming off his third college season and would've been able to enter the NFL draft under today's rules.)
    Similarly, the XFL made no attempt to undercut the NFL, though there were reports that after its first season the league considered recruiting 18- and 19-year-olds. They still wouldn't have been in direct competition with the NCAA—the plan was to talk only to players who had been unable to get into college for academic reasons—but, regardless, it never happened, because the XFL's first season turned out to be its last.


  1. I tend to think that the lack/absence of 18-year-olds probably has more to do with the nature of the game itself. I mean, in hockey, 18yos can play and excel because the nature of the game allows for a player of their size. In football, I really cannot think of any position that anyone with the physique of an 18yo could play and succeed. This is wishful thinking though, and you're probably right that this has more to do with slavery than the nature of the game but this at least helps me justify it.
    Also: The CFL is awesome. Weird plays happen, yes, but the fact that at times it comes closer to rugby than American football creates a distinct sport for viewers to watch -- and this is a good thing. One has to respect the roots of the CFL, because it's been around for so long, and know that it's not like the league just took the NFL and made changes to differentiate themselves; rather, the CFL was borne out of a different culture of playing entirely. Good post. And PS: Venn diagrams > diatribes.

  2. I tend to think that the lack/absence of 18-year-olds probably has more to do with the nature of the game itself.

    That's a point I've heard many times in reference to the NFL, and I'm not entirely comfortable with how it's kind of assumed to be true without any evidence, but I won't argue with it. But I don't see why 18-year-olds would have any trouble in another professional league. They can handle the SEC, after all.

    Anyway, thanks for the comment. You're probably right about the CFL (probably right about it being awesome, that is—you're definitely right about it having been around forever). I like to make jokes because it's weird and Canadian, but if a game was ever on TV around here, I'd be tempted to watch.

  3. As much as I'd like that article to have been written by State Senator Clay Davis, it was penned by notorious Clay Travis.


  4. Ah, thanks. I suppose it'll make it less fun, but I'll fix it anyway.

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