The corporate sports rip-off

Why are taxpayers still subsidizing professional football and basketball?

By Allen Barra
Published April 24, 2002 7:39PM (EDT)

Why, exactly, do they have the NFL draft? To listen to commissioner Paul Tagliabue, "Partly, it's new hope from new talent ... I think it's the recognition that a first-rounder can be a Pro Bowler. He can turn an entire unit around." If it's supposed to have something to do with equalizing talent, will someone tell me why, after 35 years, 16 of the NFL's 32 teams have never won a Super Bowl?

The guys who finish last get first pick of the best young players. In theory it sounds good. But it never works that way. Take football's most important position, quarterback: Only four quarterbacks drafted No. 1 have ever gone on to win Super Bowls: Terry Bradshaw, Jim Plunkett (though not with the team that drafted him), Troy Aikman (three rings) and John Elway (two). I can top that with just three quarterbacks who weren't drafted anywhere near No. 1: Bart Starr (drafted in the 17th round, winner of five championships), Johnny Unitas (ninth round, two championships) and Joe Montana (third round, four rings). If I can pick a fourth QB, I'll take arena football graduate Kurt Warner, who has one ring and who starred in two of the last three Super Bowls.

The draft doesn't create parity. Bad teams are invariably bad teams because they can't judge football talent, and not being able to judge talent, they either pick the wrong players or trade away the right ones to better, smarter teams who can afford to deal away a high-priced veteran or two for an early draft pick.

These days almost all we hear about in baseball is how fans of the Minnesota Twins or Pittsburgh Pirates or Montreal Expos have no hope at the beginning of a baseball season because there are no salary caps and there's not enough revenue sharing. Well, in the NFL they have salary caps and revenue sharing, and what realistic chance do the fans of the Arizona Cardinals or Cincinnati Bengals or Detroit Lions have? The NFL draft isn't about creating faith, hope or parity, it's about holding salaries down. If the NFL and NBA had to bid on these kids coming out of college, their salaries might be two or three times what they're now getting. Salaries are held down because of a neat arrangement between the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the National Football League and National Basketball Association.

The NCAA is very much in the business of training players for the professional leagues. Not that Major League Baseball doesn't benefit tremendously from college training, but by and large baseball pays for its own player development. The NFL and NBA don't have to. The real secret behind pro football and pro basketball prosperity is that they don't pay a dollar toward developing their own talent. More than that, they benefit from the fact that in many cases the star players are already famous by the time they leave college. The NFL and NBA, in other words, get free player development and tons of free publicity courtesy of ... well, courtesy of alumni groups but also through the courtesy of the American taxpayer, whose money funds state institutions and makes up for the deficits rung up by most university athletic departments. (Murray Sperber estimates that more than 90 percent of college athletic departments lose money.)

Why, exactly, do America's colleges and universities stand for this? College sports are, after all, the dog, and pro sports are the tail. For that matter, the universities themselves are the dog and the athletic departments the tail. Why, when the colleges are in a position to deal from power, do they willingly accept a deal that offers them exactly nothing?

A revolution that could topple the NCAA and the power of university athletic departments to dictate policy is probably a long way off, but there's something that the colleges could meanwhile demand and get. Every year the NFL and NBA swell their ranks with hundreds of new prospects, most of whom were simply taking away space and money on college campuses from more deserving (or at least more athletically challenged) students.

What would happen, I wonder, if, starting with the next pro draft, America's colleges banded together and demanded one full scholarship for every college player drafted? What exactly would the NFL's and NBA's responses be? I don't know what their initial responses would be, but I can tell you that inevitably they'd have no choice but to give the colleges what they want. No matter how the magic book-cookers would cut it, it would be a heck of a lot cheaper to grant the scholarships than to establish a huge minor-league system from scratch. In fact, some brainy assistants to the commissioners will probably point out that A) there is some way to write it all off on taxes and B) it would be a terrific public relations gesture. (And speaking of public relations, how about setting up the program so that the vast majority of the scholarships -- actually, why not all of them -- would go to academically deserving minority students?)

Who would lose in this scenario? The pro leagues would maintain their system and make a P.R. coup. The universities would get some better students and ease their consciences over participating in their despicable trading of human flesh. And the country, every year, would receive into its ranks hundreds of minority graduates who can do something more than slam dunk a basketball or spike a football.

Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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