What College Football needs to do for Pro-bound Athletes

Ohio State University dean’s-lister Cardale Jones likely acquired his classroom chops while enrolled in Ginn Academy, a school founded by Glenville High School coaching legend and former security guard Ted Ginn. Jones’ tweet has ignited controversy, garnering coverage from media outlets like ESPN and Deadspin, and eliciting vitriolic backlash that has caused Jones to delete his Twitter account. Despite a grammatical lapse, I believe the criticism is largely undeserved, and that Jones has a valid point.

A 2009 ESPN article says that 78% of NFL players are broke within two years of retirement. The movie “Broke,” part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, profiled a number of penniless former pros. From bad investments, to family pressures, to child support, athletes surpass Rossian proportions of blowing money fast. The locker room is a Petri dish of envy, swarming with competitive and suddenly rich men prone to take drastic measures to impress. But the money is like a flood, gushing through the levies after a life of drought and providing an abundance of water, a fleeting abundance that will evaporate if not properly preserved.

Ryan Pontbriand was a talented high school offensive lineman who attended Rice University on a football scholarship. He settled into the smallest niche spot in football, becoming a standout long snapper. Tasked with delivering the ball for field goals and punts, a long snapper needs to be reliable, precise, and perfect. At their best, long snappers are an afterthought and a foregone conclusion. One mistake, and they find the spotlight.

Pontbriand was drafted by the Cleveland Browns in the 5th round of the 2003 NFL Draft, the highest selection of a long snapper in NFL history. He left Rice with a degree in mechanical engineering. Pontbriand had 8 quietly great seasons in the Dawg Pound, and the league threw him a bone with Pro Bowl selections in 2007 and 2008. In 2011, two poor Pontbriand snaps in a span of three weeks resulted in Browns losses. Both were in situations where they would have obtained the lead after the two minute warning in the 4th quarter. Pontbriand was, unceremoniously, released from the team.

I looked at Pontbriand’s Twitter and laughed when I saw a LinkedIn account in the bio. Is there some sort of NFL networking at hand, where they keep tabs on each other’s car washes and restaurants online? Would Pontbriand ask Kelly Holcomb or Josh Cribbs to write him a nice recommendation for his professionalism in times of adversity? But when I clicked, I learned that Pontbriand is a full-fledged member of the workforce. He was on the San Francisco 49ers in the preseason, but moved on to a job with a Texas energy company. Because long snappers get comparatively modest salaries and live from one snap to the next, Pontbriand had a contingency plan and looks to be financially stable. He is the exception, not the standard.

There’s two ways for NFL players to enjoy comfortable post-professional circumstances. One is to traverse Pontbriand’s path, and utilize football scholarships as a chance to obtain a sought-after degree without spending a penny. When the athletic career is terminated, the degree is a sprawling parachute of lifetime financial comfort. But so many athletes see school like Cardale Jones, as an obligatory and unnecessary burden instead of an opportunity. How do you short-circuit the cycle from poverty to wealth, back to poverty that engulfs athletes? The second way to preserve wealth is to teach future pros exactly how to manage their earnings, to make the money made on 1-2 major contracts last for a lifetime.

Let’s be frank: Schools don’t care what kind of an education players get. They’re a source of revenue, merely a symbiotic back-scratching arrangement between player and program. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that; but it’s wrong to operate under a pretense of seeing the athletes as students, instead of a means of profit and prestige. Many players wouldn’t be in college without their athletic abilities. They have poor test scores, or grades, and might not want to be in college at all. But they want to play football.

College football can’t be a one-size-fits-all prescription, because many players don’t want to take the educational medicine. We need to divide athletes into groups, and offer them tailored options to best benefit the rest of their lives. There’s a fundamental schism between players who want to take classes, and players who don’t. Let’s embrace that, and make academics an optional facet of playing college football. Want to take advantage of the allotted educational openings? Proceed in the present manner.

If a player doesn’t want to go to school, that’s fine too. College athletes who are considering leaving school early and entering the draft can consult with NFL scouts to gauge their draft stock. This tells players if they are cut out to be pros, and shapes their decision to enter the draft or return to school. Coming out of High School, players are already thoroughly scouted and assigned a grade of 1-5 stars based on their talent and potential. They are measured in many of the ways future pros are. Large football factory schools always fill their rosters with highly-ranked players, while smaller schools draw less coveted athletes. If they’re rated in high school just like in college, why can’t the players consult with a board of college scouts and find out if they’re pro material?

In this system, players who won’t make the pros and don’t care about school can simply elect to play football only. This will improve the schools, raising admissions standards and offering more spots in classrooms for attendees that actually want to be there. At the same time, it frees the players (who as adults should be able to make their own choices) from the burden of studying and allows them to focus on improving athletically. Players with on-field talent should not have to work harder in the classroom to play, because it is not a privilege to play for the school. Big-time athletics is a cash cow, profiting on athletes regarded only as a means. When players have to earn the right to be exploited, who benefits?

Players with a distaste for school but a shot at the pros could then be presented with another alternative: helpful tutelage in the art of being an athlete. The NFL already throws a Rookie Symposium, in which cautionary tokens Mike Vick and Adam “Pacman” Jones preach a “Do as I say, not as I do,” message to the fledgling flock of pros. But how much can these players, many with a contempt for learning, soak up in just one weekend?

Jones told rookies that he once blew $1 million in one day

Instead, why not spend the years toiling away in irrelevant classes on educating future pros on how to handle their business? Develop courses in money management, communications, and business. Teach these players how to handle their finances, and where to find financial professionals. Show what makes an investment valuable. Help them hire a qualified agent, learn to budget income and set up a portfolio. Teach them how to speak to the press strategically, so that players can control their message and serve as a media advocate to their most valuable asset: themselves. Include courses on marketing, on game theory. Create a curriculum that gives players the tools to stretch the temporarily bountiful NFL earnings into lasting stability.

It’s impossible to expect the young and rich to make calculated business decisions when they have no formal training. Professional Prep should be a separate program, really no different than a Pre-Law or Pre-Medicine major, a useless course load for those not following the professional path, but an invaluable packaging of information to those progressing into the intended arenas. The track should use a simple pass or fail grading system, to incentivize actual learning as opposed to competing for a primary letter of the alphabet, as well as unburden schools from the academic output of big-time athletes, statistically lower than the student body, and prevent some of the purported chicanery of fabricated transcripts.

What we come out with is choices for players: Those settling on a Jonesian trope, the ones who “ain’t come to play school,” can choose their own adventure: No classes, or tailored programs less about rigorous studying and learning than about implanting life skills and lessons into future pros. Those who can balance the team and the textbook capitalize on the free college education offered to them. And the colleges boost their academic stats, retain academically troubled athletes on football teams, and ensure that their cash cows are still grazing on the green pastures of dead presidents.

Certainly, the stratification of athletics comes with some caveats. This proposal isn’t a panacea, but it’s an improvement; no plan is going to be perfect. I’m open to suggestion on how to handle athletes in lesser sports that hate school. On one hand, if the university needs them for a team, it should be an individual choice to graduate or not. At the same time, it’s easy to recognize that there isn’t much of a professional future in swimming, track and field, or golf, among many other sports. It would be the professional equivalent of advertantly swallowing a poison pill to refuse the free education. I think that, at this point, men’s football and basketball are the only sports with the professional infrastructure to support this plan. Also, BCS schools are the only places where talent is concentrated enough to employ this, so I would limit the availability of this track to the major schools. It would work as a recruiting advantage to maintain the hegemonic hierarchy of the NCAA, and is no less unfair than ensuring automatic bids for the power conferences, a practice in play today.

Also, some will still demand more benefit for players, a salary either contingent on a University’s income in the sport, or distributed among all Division 1 athletes, hammer-and-sickle style. While I identify the exploitation of college athletes, nobody is making athletes get a degree. Basketball wunderkind Brandon Jennings eschewed college for a foreign professional league until he was eligible for the NBA draft. Simply put, players who want to be compensated with cash can join a league that pays players. It’s a choice to enroll in college, and they are knowingly choosing to forgo income.

I realize that choosing to bypass classes to prepare for life as a pro will backfire in many cases. There’s no utopian predictor of success in college athletics or beyond that. We let students accrue hundreds of thousands in debt to grab a philosophy degree, even though it’s a statistically morbid move. But it’s their decision to make. Anyone saying that the players will mess up the decision or shouldn’t be allowed to choose is degrading their adulthood and denying the right to choice. Mill’s harm principle holds (and I paraphrase) that one should not interfere with the free will of another unless the action will cause harm to others. It is not acceptable to intervene if a person is only harming his or her self.

Offering a professional preparatory path will help to cull the alarming number of pros with no more dough, while freeing them of classroom obligations. And those who hate class and only want to do what they were recruited for can rest their brains until they get between the hashes. All around, we’re giving college players choices. If I said there was a way to improve the college game, strengthen the universities academically, and reduce the number of impoverished ex-athletes, everyone would jump all over that. You might even call it a no-brainer.