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.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Bringing America Together, One Venn Diagram at a Time

Last Monday I posted an article expressing my view that Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party are, in many ways, “raging against different halves of the same machine,” and I threw in a crude Venn diagram to illustrate my point. By Friday, the article had brought more traffic to this blog than my entire previous output combined, and the diagram had appeared on sites as prominent and ideologically disparate as The Cato Institute, Reason, The American Conservative, ThinkProgress, JoeMyGod, The Daily Beast, Time, and The Atlantic.[1]

Needless to say, this was a somewhat stronger response than I expected.[2] Almost as surprising is how overwhelmingly positive the reaction has been. I thought I was saying something controversial—something many would consider downright heretical—but instead I was met with near-universal agreement.[3] And the criticism hasn’t even been all that critical. Many have pointed out that the diagram fails to account for some key point or another, which is perfectly fair, and I acknowledged as much in the article, but few have objected to its underlying premise.

What, then, can be taken away from all this feel-goodery? Whatever you want to take away from it, I suppose (and I’m interested to hear some other opinions), but I think it’s safe to assume the diagram resonated so well because of its simplicity, not in spite of it—and with simplicity comes a certain toothlessness. In this case, the message could be expressed in simple terms because it dealt only with identifying problems, but once you start talking about solutions, ideological differences come into play and things get complicated.

If that sounds cynical, it’s…well, because it is, but it actually represents a step up for me. I started this blog, in part, because I feel like the ubiquitous left/right, liberal/conservative dichotomy has just about destroyed our ability to even agree on problems, much less solutions. There’s this tendency to associate every viewpoint with one side or the other, which is tolerable enough if it’s something like “we should reduce taxes on high-income earners” or “the financial industry should be more heavily regulated”, but it's distracting and counter-productive when the dispute is centered around contrasting interpretations of reality.

I watched this happen with the Tea Party. The Tea Party has, in many ways, become a conservative movement (and a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Republican Party), but there’s no good reason for the cause of rebelling against government excess and inefficiency not to appeal to everyone—libertarian, conservative, liberal, or miscellaneous. The frustration I expressed last week arose from the seeming inevitability of OWS lapsing into a similar affiliation with liberalism and the Democratic Party, and from my sense that I couldn't declare my support for and identification with the OWS movement without being branded a socialist (which I’m not—no offense, socialists).

But what I saw instead was a refudiation [4] of the idea that there’s something inherently “liberal” about acknowledging the role of the private sector in our current troubles, because of course there isn’t—no more than there’s anything inherently “conservative” about acknowledging the role of the government. And now I’m at least hopeful that the OWS/liberalism/Democratic Party alignment is not as inevitable as I thought—and hey, maybe there’s still hope for the Tea Party to turn it around, too.

So that’s what I’m taking away from the popularity of the Venn diagram. We’ll always have trouble agreeing on the best solution, but the crucial first step is agreeing on what the problem is, which at least gets us to the point where we can meaningfully and constructively disagree. Looks like I'm not the only one who's tired of bypassing that step.

1. I don’t want this to sound like an awards show speech, but seriously, thanks to Jeffrey Ellis and Steve Horwitz for getting the ball rolling. Thanks to everyone who commented on my article, everyone who shared the link or the diagram on Facebook or Twitter or wherever else… [“wrap it up” music starts playing] …my long-time readers for all the support and encouragement, um…thanks to JoeMyGod for showing me there's nothing wrong with having a blog with an awkward name and “blogspot” in the URL. [music getting louder] Ok, they're telling me to wrap it up. If I forgot anyone, sorry!
2. And, as the title of this post indicates, I've already let it go to my head. This is a good thing, because bitterness makes me funny, so I should be in rare form after I fall back down to Earth, which I assume will be any day now.
3. As the week went on the story sort of morphed from “OWS and the Tea Party have too many similarities to be so antagonistic” to “Could Occupy Wall St. and the Tea Party Unite?”, which is the title of this post on Time's Curious Capitalist blog. I might come up with more to say about that in the near future, but, for now, I just want to say that for all the enjoyment I've gotten out of watching the media overreact to things over the years, it makes me proud that, just this once, I was one of the causes of the overreaction.
4. What? It’s a perfectly cromulent word.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Occupy Wall Street vs. The Tea Party

If I may dig up one of my all-time favorite Onion articles:
79 Percent Of Americans Missing The Point Entirely
WASHINGTON, DC—According to a Georgetown University study released Tuesday, 79 percent of Americans are missing the point entirely with regard to such wide-ranging topics as politics, consumerism, taxes, entertainment, fashion, and professional wrestling. . . .
I've been trying to organize my thoughts about the coverage of the Occupy Wall Street protests, not to mention the protests themselves, and I keep coming back to that Onion article,[1] because any way I look at it, just about everyone is missing the point.

The problem, and I suppose this was inevitable, is that Occupy Wall Street is being portrayed as some kind of anti-Tea Party. Left vs. right, blue vs. red, rock vs. country, et cetera—it's the only way we know how to draw battle lines anymore. But how are the two movements meaningfully different? I sure as hell can't figure it out. There are plenty of minor differences, mostly concerning priorities and demographics, but the similarities are much more substantial. Both are popular uprisings against powerful-but-nebulous entities believed to be responsible for America's economic struggles. Both are defined not by easily-identified leaders, but by the sum total of countless unique viewpoints, and thus are not capable of articulating their goals with any cohesiveness or specificity (nor should they be expected to). And both movements, to borrow the classification scheme created by Bill O'Reilly, are teeming with both pinheads and patriots.

And yet, over the last week or so each side has generated mountains of commentary saying, essentially, this: You know the one-sidedly [negative/positive] portrayal of the Tea Party we've been pushing for two and a half years now? Well Occupy Wall Street is totally the opposite!
  • Paul Krugman describes OWS as "a popular movement that, unlike the Tea Party, is angry at the right people." Meanwhile, Ann Coulter says the OWS protesters are angry at the wrong people (and also have poor hygiene, because why not?).
  • Keith Olbermann says OWS is legitimately a grassroots movement that, at least at first, was ignored by the media. Rush Limbaugh says the Tea Party is the "organic" one, while OWS was "manufactured" by the media.
  • ThinkProgess claims the OWS protests "better embody the values of the original Boston Tea Party." BigGovernment insists the protesters are "more aligned with Marxism; with Democratic Socialism; with Soviet Era Collectivism; with the very dangerous and elitist Progressive Movement" than with anything even remotely "American".
So it goes. It's hard to be honest and fair. It's easy to cobble together some empty rhetoric and lob it in the direction of those most inclined to assume the best about their friends and the worst about their enemies.[2]

Not that I have any special insight into who's least wrong, but I'm a big fan of the sentiments expressed in this Reason article:
Of course, the type of loudmouth gadflies who show up at all large outdoor political events, whether Tea Party gatherings, GOP coffee klatches, or Democratic National Conventions, can be found in Liberty Plaza. But to dismiss an entire movement—one that is gathering momentum in cities all around the country—based on the inarticulateness of a few teenagers is entirely the wrong response. It's far more useful to try and understand what is going on here, to grok the meaning of these protesters' motivations, before prematurely passing summary judgment.
Exactly. We should pay less attention to the individual lunatics, and more attention to what a movement is really about. Occupy Wall Street, at its core, is a reaction to the increasing power and influence of large corporations. The Tea Party, at its core, is a reaction to the government's constant interference with private enterprise. But wait a minute—aren't those things connected?

Bailouts, subsidies, tax breaks, special rights and privileges, regulations designed to restrict competition—to name a few of the many ways the government protects and stimulates corporate interests, and those things are every bit as anti-free market as, not to mention directly related to, the high taxes and excessive bureaucracy that gets Tea Partiers riled up.[3] In other words, aren't these two groups—Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party—raging against different halves of the same machine? Do I have to draw a Venn diagram here?

Oh, alright, I'll draw a Venn diagram: that's how alt-text works

Yeah, I'm oversimplifying, but only a little. The greatest threat to our economy is neither corporations nor the government. The greatest threat to our economy is both of them working together. There are currently two sizable coalitions of angry citizens that are almost on the same page about that, and they're too busy insulting each other to notice.

1. The best part is the quote at the end:
"If I want to miss the point, that's my own business," said Ernie Schayr, a Wheeling, WV, auto mechanic. "If I want to complain about having to pay taxes while at the same time demanding extra police protection for my neighborhood, that's my right as an American. Most people in other countries don't ever get the chance to miss the point, and that's tragic. The East Timorese are so busy fleeing for their lives, they never have the chance to go to the supermarket during the busiest time of the week and complain to the cashier about how long the lines are and ask them why they don't do something about it."
2. Here's a refreshing case of common sense and reason transcending partisanship: An open letter and warning from a former tea party movement adherent to the Occupy Wall Street movement. Naturally, the author is anonymous (as far as I can tell). By Reverend Vas Littlecrow Wojtanowicz.
3. By all means, leave a comment if you think I'm wrong, but it's a myth that big corporations are anti-government, right? They don't want to have to compete in a free market, they want to "compete" in an artificially restricted market.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Alright, Fine, I’ll Add a Disclaimer to My Emails

For reasons probably related to the fact that I'm now one of them, I've been involved in more and more email exchanges with lawyers lately. Their emails often include fancy disclaimers,[1] while mine are just out there, naked and vulnerable, which made me self-conscious, so I decided to write a disclaimer of my own. I was rather happy with the result, so I sent it in to McSweeney's, where it was recently published:
Alright, Fine, I’ll Add a Disclaimer to My Emails.

What does this have to do with politics and political discourse? Um…I'm still working on that. In the meantime, so that this post isn't entirely an exercise in self-promotion, I thought I'd link to some of my all-time favorite McSweeney's pieces:

What Your Favorite Classic Rock Band Says About You.
And by all means, check out the follow-ups too.

An Open Letter to the Person in Charge of New Punctuation.
Probably the most compelling punctuation-related proposal I've ever seen (and there's more competition than you'd think).

Straight Answers to Some Popular Rhetorical Riddles
"If the police arrest a mime, do they tell him he has the right to remain silent? Only if the police intend to question the mime."

Thirty-Nine Questions for Charlie Daniels Upon Hearing “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” for the First Time in 25 Years.
Actually, just go to John Moe's author page. It's all outstanding.

And, of course, Kevin Collier's Get to Know an Internet Commenter series, which I'm a little upset I didn't think of myself.

1. To be fair, some of these disclaimers, like the one about tax advice, are legally required in certain situations. I know very little about how that particular disclaimer came to be, or whether it's an effective solution to an extant problem, but the government probably knows what it's doing, right?