If you’ve lived under a rock the past two weeks, Johnny Manziel is under investigation by the NCAA for selling his autograph. The NCAA caught immediate flak from many people for the hypocrisy of making millions selling player merchandise, and then trying to stop Manziel from earning any money with his image. It is a no-win scenario for the NCAA. If they punish Manziel, they’re hypocrites. If they don’t, they’re weaklings.
The situation highlights an unequivocal truth: The NCAA is broken, and completely unsustainable. If Ed O’Bannon’s lawsuit doesn’t break it, the institution will fall under its own weight. The O’Bannon suit is focused on revenue sharing for college athletes. Former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon sued for a portion of the NCAA revenue that is generated from college athletes. Current NCAA athletes recently joined the suit and now the case can potentially be turned into a class-action lawsuit. If it reaches class-action, the payouts get even bigger. A win by O’Bannon will ruin the current revenue stream for the NCAA since the payout will be hundreds of millions of dollars.
There have been multiple plans to “fix” the NCAA, mostly centering on paying players, but that solution isn’t very palatable to many NCAA members. Paying players raises an entire series of concerns surrounding Title IX, and taxes. The same is true for the potential new division that was bandied about at numerous media days. I propose a different solution: Let the NFL form a development league like the NBA and MLB, and put the “student” back in student-athlete.
An NFL D-League would allow players that want to take a chance on being drafted even straight out of high school to do so. If they weren’t drafted, and hired an agent, they would void their amateur eligibility. The college football product would get diluted since the top players would feed straight into the D-League, but that’s the price of fixing the NCAA in this scenario.
What would the NCAA’s role be in this new paradigm? The same as it currently is, but it would be able to fulfill the guardianship of an important American tradition, namely amateurism in intercollegiate athletics. The smaller money pool would curb the extreme spending and defuse what has become an arms race in many college athletic departments. The NCAA would also flip public perception with the move. It’s no longer an inconsistent money-grubbing entity. Instead, it is simply doing the job that it was intended to do.
Under current NFL bylaws, players are blocked from declaring from the draft until they are three years out of high-school. The ban has been challenged by Clarett v. NFL in 2003. The court decided that the ban was legal. In order for the D-League to work, the three year ban would have to be challenged again. It is very true that any plan which requires litigation begins on rocky ground. Unfortunately, there is no road out of the NCAA’s current state that doesn’t involve courtroom time. Paying players will go there. A new division will go there too.