Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Stopping Offers to Children I & II

The New York Times has belatedly discussed a long time practice in college athletics of offering college athletic scholarships to grade school children. This is not new and has slowly gotten worse as coaches have reluctantly driven offers down to lower ages just to stay in the game of recruiting. Parents desperate for economic certainty, kids, young and excited and awed, and coaches driven by recruiting zero sum games, just make it worse. It's an ugly problem and easy to solve, but the NCAA process stymied by athletic directors fearful of enforcement issues and losing their comparative advantage of attracting young kids have twice in the last ten years stopped the reforms. I am republishing below an analysis that I did four years ago and things have only gotten worse.

As excited college freshman pile onto college campuses to begin team practice this month, it brings to mind one of the more gruesome corruptions of the NCAA process. All these eighteen year old freshman have been aggressively recruited  by college coaches since they were early teens. An epidemic grips college colleges leading to wrong-heaed early scholarship offers to children ages 13-6. Thirteen year olds still in grade school have home visits  Everyone hates it, no one has done anything about it until now. Coaches wrap up recruiting seasons two years prior and are already raiding freshman while keeping watchful eyes on seventh and eight graders.

This is wrong. Everything we know about neurological development tells us that 12-16 year olds are not ready cognitively or emotionally to make life -altering decisions about where they will go to college. Yet the dynamics of modern recruiting push coaches against their better judgment to extend offers to kids earlier and earlier. When one prized recruit gets an offer at age 13, others follow to show the recruit love and avoid disrespecting him or her. Tracking coaches over six years I am amazed at how many of them who were appalled at the idea when it snowballed about seven years ago are now comfortable, resigned, but comfortable with the idea. 

Early decisions make a mockery of any academic pretensions the NCAA has for its student athletes. Informal offers extend to kids before they enter high school!! No one has a clue how they will do academically. Offers to freshman and sophomores with less then fourth semesters of early high school work reflect the same contempt for the academic aspect of student athletes.The whole process is wrong for the kids and makes hypocrites of college athletics, given what college athletes is evolving into that takes works.

From a purely athletic standpoint, early offers are absurd. With very very rare exceptions, student athletes have not reached their full emotional or physical potential as freshmen and sophomores let alone eighth graders. It’s hard to assess work ethic let alone academic commitment or acumen. Intermediaries have more influence at earlier ages. Early decisions generate more mistakes and mismatches that  lead to more transfers later. Alot can happen between 13 and 18. Students grow up. Young athletes burn out; lose motivation or gain it; characters change; injuries occur; puberty intervenes. 

The early decisions create serious inequalities. Unofficial recruiting visits and camp participation drive the whole process. This gives decided advantages to kids whose parents can afford to take them on visits to schools or pay for camps. Significant advantages also accrue to geographically nearby and urban schools since kids and not so well off parents can have easy unofficial visits. The unofficial visit plays into the hands of AAU and club coaches who can conveniently arrange tournaments in geographic areas for prize recruits to make unofficial visits they could not afford. This further increases their role as handlers for high profile athletes.

The whole early recruiting mess is driven by strong forces.  Coaches are obsessed with avoiding competitive disadvantages. Many coaching associations have condemned the practice and urged coaches to stop. But as is often the case, given the competition for athletes and demand to win, if just one coach making a very early offer, this sets off a downward age spiral. No coaching association has successfully stopped this trend with self regulation. The need to avoid losing competitive disadvantage is just too strong.

Parents also have a strong incentive to end uncertainty. The world of club sports has made youth sports an economic investment for parents, and the return is a college scholarship. Parents, guardians and club coaches all collaborate in an economically driven dynamic to start kids earlier, get them exposure and access to college coaches and get scholarships The early offers seal the deal and provide the payoff and certainty for the investment. Many club sports tout themselves to parents as road to a scholarship and tout their own connections to high profile coaches. 

Finally myriad college recruiting services make a living from rating, following and hyping athletes. These services increase parental involvement and knowledge. They generate excitement and energy around athletes and parents, and this can be fun for awhile. The recruiting services, however, turn parents more aggressive in seeking scholarships and manipulating the system. The services make money and visibility. The media feeds on it with their breathless coverage of recruiting hyped press conferences. The average football or basketball recruit now holds their own press conference breathless attended by sycophantic bloggers and recruiting services to announce their commitments.

For the past several years different coaching groups like Lacrosse and Soccer have proposed rigid recruiting calendars for their sports. The NCAA balked at making sport specific legislation and wanted more information, so they died. Additionally everyone claimed that banning early offers was unenforceable and this tended to break any deal proposed. Now things have changed. I will discuss this in the next entry.

The whole early offer dynamic is driven by colleges who press coaches relentllessly to to win now. Colleges seldom give the coaches the four to six years they need to develop a strong culture and pipeline of athletes committed to their system. When teachers like myself bemoan the absurdity of offering college scholarships to 13-15 year old, I have to remember that the Presidents and athletic directors motivate this corruption by their hair triggers on coaches.

No sane coach would make an offer to a fourteen year old. It might make sense in rare cases and in rare sports, more Olympic women's sports where body shape maturity arrives earlier and in a few exceptional basketball cases. But to be honest, many sports coaches have no real ability to predict the development ceiling or work ethic and certainly not academic potential of an 8th. grader or freshman. The dynamic gets the most media coverage in basketball where coaches like Mark Few at Gonzaga or Tim Floyd would make offers to seventh and eight graders. But the real rush occured in sports like women's soccer, gymnastics and volleyball. The problem is not relegated to the high profile sports but permeates all the sports, even teams we do no normally associate with money obsessions. As one coach told me, "I simply can't let her stand out there with an offer from another school without signalling my interest. Otherwise I am out of the running with her parents."

Even football is now being infected. For obvious reasons the coaches wanted to see more age and body development, but now the sport sponsors national eighth and seventh grade tournaments.Seventh and eight grade football players have their own national tournament where offers cascade down on children, granted big bodied children, who have not attended high school so a 13 year old now has a full offer from Hawaii. The apocryphal story of USC's offer to a 13 year old quarterback will become increasing common violating not just an academic pretenstions but any reasonable sport logic. All the coaching associations despite repeated announcments have failed to stop or even slow down the practice. The inimitable Tim Floyd formerUSC paragon of recruiting integrity summed up the logic when he offered a scholarship to a 13 year old to stop Duke and others from getting the young man.

The real solution is blunt, direct and clear. All offers of scholarship aid before the first day of class in second semester of the junior year of high school should be illegal and subject to a major violation—the prospective student athlete would be declared ineligible to attend the violating school. No waivers would be allowed; no appeals allowed. We could add penalties for coaches, but the key is to sever the attendance from the offer. This gets at the issue of parental certainty because they can no longer rely upon the certainty of any unofficial offers. It takes away the publicity and glory from the family and young athlete when all the such offers are illegal and could prevent the athlete from attending the school.
There are two keys. Make the oral offers illegal. Make the penalty loss of the student athlete. The coaches have to see real penalities and the parents have to see real loss of uncertainty to break the chain.

This reduces the coaches’ incentives to make informal offers because they lose the athlete. The media dynamic changes because unofficial offers now become big news as violations, not big news for kids and parents and recruiting services. This approach turns the media into a watchdog rather than parade dog. Since the official ldmedia with rare exceptions will not follow this up, the NCAA and regulators will need to rely upon the blog reporters who spend immense time watching other schools for violations and tracking high profile recruits as part of their niche.

Coaches will immediately say, well, coach X will cheat anyway and just say "well, if you keep you keep your grades up, I will offer you a scholarship in two years." It of course violates the whole spirit of the law and what coaches believe they should not be doing. But I can live with this conditional. First, it no longer gives the parents or the athlete the level of certainty; second, the conditional offer is not a guarantee and makes the athlete sill open to recruiting from other coaches; third, it reminds the student athlete that they have to go to school, attend class and get good grades in core classes or no offer can occur. More than a few coaches will invent sophistical ways around, but the offer will not longer have the full guarantee and will cut the umbilical chord of certainty for parents or the sense of obligation from the athlete.

Coaches should have a strong incentive to self-police and report on early violations; unfortunately the coaching fraternities have incredibly strong rules against informing on each othe. The culture against snitching that their own teams accept, pervades the coaching fraternities. No one wants to be known as a snitcher and to some extent it gives them mutual dirt on each other. It's odd given how many good coaches get hurt by the coaches who violate the rules. In some of the fraternities the coaches will go after those they don't like, but most will keep silent when they learn of the illegal offers. They might make a personal call to the offending coaches, but coaches like Caliperi and his ilk are immune to peer pressure. It's a big mistake modelling for their own players how to cover up cheating on the team. I think some of this is career protection, people are afraid of not getting hired if they get the reputation, but it brings down the entire profession.

Ironically the recruiting services will be big winners because the recruiting uncertainty will linger, and they can invent new categories to try and figure out what a student athlete is thinking. It would take aggressive and high profile NCAA pursuit to create those examples. The informal blog sphere will follow these with microscopes and the most information about violations would come from the informal medi, not the mainline media.

Thankfully the NCAA Recruiting and Athletics Personnel Issues Cabinet has courageously come out with very similar proposals. The committee had to fend off immense opposition. The constant refrain was it is impossible to monitor. The Cabinet correctly concluded that early offers mock the academic mission of college athletes and with pesistence and courage made the proposal. It will face a lot of opposition especially as coaches who hate doing it but are now accustomed to it claim it will hurt them and be unenforceable. The coaches present a classic case on getting accustomed to what you know is morally wrong.

The rule is simple, clear and enforceable. The new approach will not be pleasant. Initially it will create a climate of recrimination and coaches watching coaches like hawks, but they already do. The rule takes away the incentives of parents and media to go for early offers. Above all it respects the academic and personal development of the student athlete.

This clear and obvious idea was defeated when the athletic directors goaded by coaches decided that the idea was "unenforceable." The process eroded support at the conference level and then guaranteed defeat at the top level. So the mockery of academics continues despite the ethical unease of coaches who feel as if they must do this to even "stay in the game." Until the athletic directors are willing to risk doing the right thing and let self-enforcement take its natural course, this insane and unethical practice will continue.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Community Building: Sports and Super Bowls in Seattle

When sports works, I believe teams can foster community and identity in regions and across time. Living in Seattle through the Seahawk’s exciting and uneven climb to the 2014 Super Bowl reminds me of how forging community bonds through sport can work.

A good friend of my son’s captured this on a post on her Facebook last week. It captures the feelings that create connection and solidarilty across the generations, races, genders and geographic patchwork of the region:

“The city is on fire. I have never been so excited, never had so much hope. WE as a COMMUNITY, whatever the struggle, we are here as one! It takes a certain type of human to survive here; the weather itself is a staple to our namesake. Let's show the country and fuck it, the world what the possibilities are when you BELIEVE.”

Walking through my neighborhood downtown Ballard yesterday I waded through a sea of blue and green (lime green of all things). The Starbucks baristas eyes were lined with blue paint and the letter 12. Numbers 11 and 3 adorned half the people sitting on the street—Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson  respectively. Businesses were festooned with blue banners emblazoned with the 12 for the 12th man.

Neighborhood houses replaced Christmas light with blue and green Seahawk lights—this is a good thing to fight against the winter grey. Giant banners with the Seahawks wonderful logo, born of Northwest Indian art, or 12 pop up in yards, busses, cars and random street corners., People yell “go hawks” to random strangers who respond in kind.

People like me always write about the “soft power” benefits of athletic teams for building a sense of community. These last five weeks of Seahawk mania spread a remarkable tide of good will and festive hope and fear across the region. It confirms my own beliefs. People smile at each other as they wear silly colors. Race, age, class seem to meld across the “go hawks” signs and gestures people salute each other with.

I don’t want to sound too romantic—I know only too well about the profit and marketing and violence that is woven through the reality of modern professional football. I know sports is ephemeral, as is art and love and even toothpaste.

But I don’t care and I believe it matters. Watching and rooting for fine athletic competitors gives people a chance to appreciate the power, beauty and intelligence that humans can display. This experience encourages people to unite together and share a common set of emotions and dreams and language. These opportunities are rare.

This long crazy march to a championship game covers six months of increasing intensity and attention from people. It can go the other way, I know as a Mariners fan people just ignore or pretend the Mariner’s don’t exist by the second month. However, here are the ways that sports teams and success can help build community and identity.

1.    It creates a shared memory for people that people in the region and families and friends and school kids live through and recall. They remember it and refer to it in conversation. It marks a time of shared hope or despair. It marks a period where people focused on the same goal regardless of their other differences. It becomes a reference point to remember fondly and remind each other that we share a common place and memory and that we can have a future together.

2.   The forging of the memory itself creates a social bridge, language and common reference that invites people to speak across boundaries. It can diffuse hostility and distrust or just uneasiness. A social space where a safe and engaging language and content exists is rare—“how about this weather?”—these connections are precious and need to be bolstered wherever we can find them. I realize that part of the population will never “get” sports and this language can exclude them. Given how few and polarizing many other languages can be—think religion—I am happy for this limited but real social space and bridge.

3.   Sports teams manifest symbolic unity in ways seldom offered. People can share “their true colors.” They wear uniforms and jerseys and paraphernalia  that creates a symbolic connect and unity across divisions. These symbols tell you that no matter how different the other person looks or seems or where they live, you share this one point of emotional reference and attention in common. It bridges the differences, opens a conversation and diffuses distance.

4.   This solidariy invites people to express their support in so many ways. People become active participants to express their social commitment—how is that for an academic mouthful? Think about all the variations of costumes and body paint of the fans. People see themselves as participants in the process. The fans scream and yell and create minor earthquakes here in Seattle. They impact the game. Others pray or sit backwards or wear their winning jersey; we participate in this process and not just passively watch it. Social media amplifies the intensity and craziness of the participation for good or bad.
5.   People devote time, energy, effort, ingenuity and intelligence to express their support. This can go deep. I can find twenty Seahawk inspired cocktails in one bar walk through Ballard. Seahawk inspired meals are served, merchandise occurs on street corners and Nordstrom’s, who knew you could have a Seahawks nutcracker?  We turn this into a sacrament that we live, wear or eat.
On a personal note the Top Pot Seahawk donuts with blue and green sprinkles are really important.

American culture can fracture into micro-communities and segregate in so many ways, that opportunities to build shared experience and shared goals and emotions across these ever splintering groups should be treasured and enjoyed. Following a sports team offers a good if sometime silly way to experience and build bonds that may seem ephemeral but establish memories and connections that can last for long periods of time. I still can remember when my Kansas City Chiefs beat the Minnesota twins to win a Super Bowl and of the Kansas City Royals won the World Series. I can tell you where I was and how I watched the games. My family and regional friends all share the same moment, the same experience, the same references as we age and grow apart in so many other ways.

After consultation with friends I will be wearing my same jersey in all its blue and lime green glory unwashed for the Super Bowl. All the supporters will all be at one with our shares aspirations and shared feelings of joy and sorrow—Whatever the outcome, we have chosen to share a common emotional bond and connect in conversation and symbol with this team and “our” team. It has helped forge the “we” that modern life so easily forgets.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Concussion Battle the NFL Must Win

The NFL battle to protect the brains and mental health of players is proceeding on a wide front. One of the most critical is occurring right now on the sidelines. It is a medical and political and symbolic battle that the NFL must win.

So far 15 players removed from games for concussions during the 2014 playoffs. The 2014 NFL playoffs reveal the violence and quandary the NFL faces as it pushes to minimize long-term brain damage. First the NFL realizes the very popularity of the game grows from its combination of violence, beauty and intelligence. Second, its motives are mixed with fear of liability coupled with a slowly dawning stewardship for the long-term health of its players.

At best all the efforts from regulated contact in practices to limiting head to head hits will only make an inherently dangerous and violent game marginally more safe. In the first six games of the playoffs, ten players were kept out by concussion protocols. Two players flouted the protocols ignoring doctor’s orders. Three of the lost players clearly affected the outcome of the games. But the NFL must continue to create a hard and fast line on concussion. It will not be easy.

The games remind everyone how ruthlessly violent the game remains and will continue to be. As the Grantland summary put it, “the most violent teams won.” Players will continue to get bigger and stronger and faster. Aggressive and violent play will be rewarded. Technology may or may not minimize damage to the heads.  CTE Chronic traumatic encephalography will continue to sneak into the lives of thirty and forty year old men long before their time and steal their souls. Football has a cost far beyond that to knees, arms and backs. Now we know it even if the committed fan base and veterans live in denial.

The attempts to change the game is putting huge stress on the autonomy and professionalism of all concerned. The referees are doing an admirable and hard job taking the brunt of anger for creating the common law norms for the new safety rules. Coaches are reluctantly but effectively, when they choose, integrating new techniques into the coaching. The fact that not only “normal” physical injuries are removing players but now concussions are placing immense stress on team doctors where an inherent conflict of interest can exist between being employed by a team and trying to protect the safety of a player. This is amplified when the coach and player both want to get the player back into the game. The entire culture of sport and football especially praise and reward players who “play through the pain” and return to the game for the sake of the team.  

The NFL has to win this battle for the long term welfare of the players.

The interesting point is how many players and veterans resist and attack these changes. Richard Sherman, the smart, brash and aggressive corner of the Seattle Seahawks dismissed the concerns by saying, “if you don't like it don’t watch it.” He’s wrong. The stakes are too high for the players, the league and the future players.

Two major sets of reasons exist to set these clear lines and get concussed players off the field immediately.

First, militantly diagnosing concussions and not letting NFL players return sends a powerful message to young players, parents and lower level coaches. Only if NFL players are forced to stop playing will high school coaches and institutions force their own players to stop play. Only if the NFL players force players off the field because of concussions will mother and fathers sit up and think harder about their own children. Only then will young players understand that ruining your mind and judgment is not the way to become a long term sucesssful athlete.

The symbolic power of these actions will ripple down and impact adults and high schools and colleges to take this far more seriously. This is no longer about having your “bell run” and returning. Although NFL commentators snidely mentioned, “we would have returned to the game with that kind of hit.” Almost universally explayer commentators belittle the new rules and getting people off. They glorify players like the Saints Kennan Lewis who animatedly argued with his coaches to get back on the field. But then these commentators still have minds to make coherent arguments, bring on Steve Young or Tony Dorsett and ask them.

We are only learning about the pervasive nature of concussions on people and their cumulative impact. The underdeveloped and less protected brains of young players makes it even more important to protect their brains.

The battle will need relentless support from the league. Roger Goodell will continue to be attacked for efforts to make the game safer. The older players and veterans lead by cheerleaders like Mike Golic on Mike and Mike in theMorning will continue to defame Goodell. Ex-players with access to microphones will bemoan how the changes will dilute the power and majesty of the game.

Veterans, at least the ones not beginning to suffer from brain damage, will rail against how efforts to minimize intentional helmet to helmet or helpless player hits somehow undermines the “integrity” of the game and forces players to throttle back and play with less aggression or skill. This syndrome exists everywhere, "we had it so much harder." To be honest they veterans may have and now we know that they were being having their brains traumatized and many of them are now suffering for it. I find it odd that they are not willing to get out of their own mind set of wanting to replicated their initiation rites of toughness and protect the future from what they own colleagues are now suffering. 

They will even mock the efforts like the comment during when game when Chris Collingsworth states, “When I was playing football, he would be back in the game. The doctors now are taking a much stronger approach to this issue;”—this is in a league where 7 percent of the all players have season ending injuries—7 percent have season ending injuries!!

This resistance makes no sense. The game has always evolved and players relearn skills all the time. These are the same voices who would have opposed the early twentieth century outlawing of the flying wedge and other formations after 14 players were killed in one year.

Look how quickly college basketball players adopted to new rules on hand checking this year. No one has accused the NFL of becoming namby-pamby Along with 7 percent having season ending injuries, 10 percent suffer concussions each season. New skills, new training will be integrated. Professional football players are some of the most ferociously disciplined athletes in the world with their endless balancing of violence, aggression and skill and team cohesion. They will learn and adapt.

The other argument lies in the claim that these are mature and informed 22-year old adults who can give "informed consent" to risk loss of brain function and self-conscious freedom. I buy this to an extent, but believe society has the right to take certain decisions away from people. Every set of safety regulations designed to minimize the threat of long term injury to workers is based upon the same set of concerns. Many jobs such as coal mining are inherently risky and dangerous but organizations and government have the right to limit some of the more predictable and egregious threats. This protects the workers and it protects the liability of the companies. The risk matrix of an occupation is legitimate concern for society and law.

The NFL concussion settlement depended upon the claim that prior players did not know the full danger to themselves and that the NFL hid the dangers. Now that claim will not work and young players proclaim their willingness to risk their self-awarenss and freedom of choice at age 23.

I do not believe that risking the physiological foundations of personality and free choice linked to one’s brain should be fully respected by many players. I think institutions can accept at face value the willingness to risk one’s future capacity to exercise judgment and free will. This decision may make sense but does not possessess unlimited respect or deference from me or the league or the union.

Many of the most important decisions have in fact been bargained by the union. The level of contact in practices has been limited and other restrictions lower the average exposure to head trauma. It is now clear from data that repetitive injury can be as potentially dangerous as concussive trauma. These hidden but vital changes could be one of the most important long-term impacts and will be critical to migrate to colleges and their own practice schedules. Individual players have neither the incentive nor ability to negotiate their safety issues as individuals—they have too much at stake to maximize their gains in a very short career; they will take the risk.

In addition players who have been concussed are simply in no position, even if they think they are, to make the decision. The more we understand about the neural and traumatic impacts of a concussion the more we know that players, even if they seem to be, are not fully cognizant and not in their “full faculties.” They have significant and unpredictable. In addition significant cognitve and physical exertion aggravate concussions and hurt. In college schools are now stopping concussed athletes from taking exams until they have recovered under protocols.

The new NFL protocols embody the best available concussive diagnoses but also build in the need for quiet and rest afterwards to ensure diagnosis but also fast and safer recovery. To work the league needs clear and absolute lines and absolute authority with no compromises given to the doctors.

Beleaguered coaches, overactive owners and desperate players all have conflict of interests about wanting the players back in the game as soon as possible. Even team doctors have implicit conflicts even with clear protocols. Teams can fire them and get more pliable doctors, so the doctors have their own potential conflict of interests against their professional autonomy and judgment..

Above all the players want to play. They love the game; they feel obligations to their teammates. In the playoffs the stakes of loyalty and winning and money and fame rise.

Each player also plays one injury from oblivion. The stories are infinite and real. A player such as Alex Smith of the 49ers has to sit from a concussion and never returns to play when Colin Kaepernick takes his place. It happens enough to be a real and constant threat. Players play for money and worry about being replaced with the “next one up” mentality. Injuries in professional football are so regular and recurring it feels more like the military with “next one up” and the utter Replaceability of everyone at a second’s notice.

Team doctors perform the original baseline examinations at the start of training camp. The doctor has a clear cognitive and neurological baseline for each player. When they perform the protocol that takes up to 15 minutes, the doctors measure memory, concentration, balance and recall as well as baseline knowledge. The existence of the baseline makes the protocols stronger.

People, myself included, worried that the team doctors can be compromised given that they depend upon the team for their salary and this creates a conflict of interest which can pit their medical judgment against the need for the team to have a player return as fast as possible. Now every game has an unaffiliated neuro-trauma expert on the sidelines as a second pair of eyes and double check. This gives much greater weight to the doctors and medical independence of judgment.

The NFL is doing this for mixed motives. Obviously they want to avoid another law suit. They want to head off a cultural and government reaction against the violence that effectively segregated off boxing from the wider culture. At the same time the league wants players to have full and rich lives as they age and not just during the heyday of their careers, which normally last from 23-28. I can live with mixed motives to do the right thing especially when the league has to push back against the short-term self-interest of owners, players and coaches to make this happen.

The society may ultimately leave football behind as it has boxing for all but a strange and corrupt minority. But until society changes or liability costs destroy college and high school football, the game with its violence and beauty and intellectual wizardry will continue.

This is only one battle on a wide front to try and at least minimize the worst long-term damage from football to players—stealing their mind and personality. Even these efforts face opposition and mockery from those who should know better. But the NFL has to perservere and we as fans should support it.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Three & Gone versus One & Done

A record 90 third year college football players declared for the NFL draft this year. This continues a decade long trend. Some reflects bad information from agents out to make a buck; but many of these third year football players are making good decisions based upon clear NFL panel information. As a college educator this makes sense to me while the basketball one and done violates everything college athletics aspires to be. 
Why the difference?

The sometimes-shaky moral foundation of college athletics depends upon viewing the individual athlete as a student and a learner both in an academic and athletic setting. The claim that athletes learn in the classroom and experience college enrichment grounds the claim of college athletics to be an educational endeavor. The trajectory of learning aims at earning a degree that certifies that learning and prepares a student for life and career beyond college walls. To be clear, as most college graduates know, the degree does not guarantee a job.

The great challenge to give reality to this moral claim lies in ensuring that the individuals who play college sports get a real education in the classroom. Most athletes enter college identifying as athletes first. They devote immense hours to playing the sport they love and 98% will never play professional sport. In basketball and football many are academically underprepared for college social and academic life. Lots of studies demonstrate that an individual who plays intercollegiate athletics needs to evolve their self-understanding and see themselves as students and persons as well as athletes to succeed in the classroom and graduate.

This evolution for athletes takes time and involves a bridge period where many young highly recruited individuals resist classroom culture. Young athletes can struggle with the transition from being lionized athletes to being competitive athletes and going to class especially if the classroom has been a realm of failure and under-achievement. It takes about two plus years for most athletes to make this transition.

For the ultra-elite baseball and football players who are now leaving after three years, I believe that colleges and students have demonstrated good faith effort to be true to that mission of college athletics as a full educational endeavor. This can be the right decision for the student who has a reasonable skill and an informed chance to try the professional life.

Let me explain why.

1.    Most third year students who play football or baseball at Division 1 schools have taken regular summer classes for three years and have made serious academic and reflective progress in college. College football players at division 1 schools all start by taking summer school bridge classes to earn credit and prepare them for the cultural and academic shock of college academics. Three years of summer classes plus regular loads lead to strong junior status for many students. Many senior football players already have enough credit to graduate.
a.    Class attendance and progress towards degree Athletes pushed by coaches to keep players eligible, get them educated and build a backlog of credit if a student struggles in one term. If athletes do not meet these standards, they cannot play.
b.    In the schools that invest money in academic support, this means the vast majority of third year college football and baseball players have had over 100 hours of college class credit and are well on their way to degrees. I need to emphasize that this whole approach depends upon the reality that schools provide real academic screening at admission and honest and professional academic support to the student while they play college sports.
c.    Coaches’ and school incentives are now tied to graduation rates and progress toward degrees so the self-interest of the school and coaches supports this press to take academics seriously.
d.    By the third year many individuals who come to college identifying as athletes begin to see themselves as students and persons beyond athletes.

2.    This identity change enables them to succeed better in the classroom and be more prepared for life beyond college. It is the best predictor of whether a student will stay in and graduate even after their eligibility is over. Leaving aside the less than 800 players who will be drafted for 3-5 year careers in professional ball, the other 25,000 in Division 1 & 2 football players have reasonable chance to graduate with a meaningful college degree.

3.    To me as an educator, this means the student who is an athlete has gone to class, met professors, learned the basic academic skills and read and written papers as well as started on learning to think critically about themselves and life. The foundations for a reflective life and a richer life as well as a long-term professional life have been laid.

At this point if a football or baseball player believe on the basis of good evidence, and the NFL and MLB have strong and accurate panels to predict when they will be drafted, then I think it makes sense to make themselves eligible for the draft.
This three year experience with progress towards degree plus regular summer school and academic and psychological support is fundamentally different from the 1 and done life of college basketball players.

These one and done students barely touch classes; few even attend classes the second term as they make a run for the NCAA tournament and travel and train to get ready for the professional draft. The one and done types may end up finishing something resembling classes to protect the graduate rates of the schools. I believe it is the height of hypocrisy for the NCAA or colleges to pretend that any serious college impact occurs for these players.
 The basketball players face a bind because they are ready to enter the professional leagues after high school. The NBA, however, for labor reasons will not let them. They have nowhere to go but college during that one-year hiatus.

Colleges cannot stop one and done aspirants from coming to school because it would violate too many laws. This gives the NBA and player’s union get a perfect deal, but one and done does absolutely nothing for the academic or social or intellectual life of the one and done players. The vast majority of them will never finish college and after their 3-5 years will end up with no professional future, and one half will be broke three years after they retire without a college degree or training to fall back upon. The best colleges and NCAA can do is built up the high school requirements to ensure some level of academic achievement at earlier levels and not let low academic players play their first year.

In baseball and soccer with their minor league systems, athletes have a choice to become professionals after high school. Those who go to college make a conscious choice about creating a college career, getting a college educations and playing the sport of their passion as well as preparing for professional careers. Most tennis and golf players have made the choice to forgo turning professional early and use college the same way.

Football has changed radically in the last decade. Ten years ago most college football players redshirted and most draftees sat for two years after being drafted. All that has changed and made three and run a reasonable tactic for third year college football players. Three things have changed in football.

1.    The modern conditioning regimes have created physically stronger and more mature players at an earlier age. This conditioning revolution has been supported by the growth of sophisticated coaching has migrated to high school level. In addition 7 by 7 leagues have increased the skill and sophistication of skill players. They come into college ready to start at much higher levels rather than red-shirting as was the case a decade ago. 21-year-old college juniors or red shirt sophomores possess a level of skill and maturity and physical preparedness that transcends the world of 15 years ago. They are ready to play in many cases and leaving for professional ball with three years of classes and academics and academic support makes perfect sense.

2.    The NFL game has evolved to converge with the skill sets of advanced college players. Most to top three round draftees are expected to play regularly in their first year. Unheard of ten years ago, professional quarterbacks; skill players and even lineman now regularly start for professional teams. A decade ago the norm would be to sit and wait and grow and develop for two to three years—the modern sophistication of collegiate football coupled with the evolution of the professional game no longer make this necessary.

At the end of three years ultra-elite college football players are ready for professional sports. They may be ready even earlier but from a college point of view, three years in college provides the moral support and justification for the college sports enterprise.

I believe we have done justice to the promise for these players at the end of three years if the college has committed to honest support and real education.
College players have a dream to play in the NFL and this should not be denied if it is consistent with the mission of college athletics as an educational endeavor—again remember we are dealing with very small numbers but very real ones compared to the rest of the college players who will play for four years and have the real chance to get their degrees if they commit and stick to the program with support.

The sheer dangers of football make this decision even more reasonable. Skill players, running backs and receivers know the sheer costs of cumulative hits to their body. Repetitive stress increases the range of costs to their body and their potential life as professionals for the 5 percent of college football players who would be drafted by the NFL.

These ultra elite players have good reason if given good information on draft status to leave early and achieve their dreams and in many cases support their family. I still remember the horrible injuries to Sam Bradford at Texas or Marcus Lattimore at South Carolina when he stayed for his fourth year or what happened to at South Carolina.

Three and done for the ultra elite is a defensible way to approach college, academics, sports and professional possibilities. One and done mocks the enterprise.