The NFL stumbled into the greatest deal. The league doesn’t have a developmental league it has to pay for. Their developmental league plays on Saturdays. And that labor isn’t paid.
College football has long been the training ground for the NFL. Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League pay for minor leagues. The NBA has the G League. The NFL doesn’t pay a dime. They use college football, and it’s a mutually beneficial relationship. Colleges treat sports like the big business that it is, and the outdated notion of amateurism keeps them from having to pay the players. The NFL does its part. The rule in the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement (Article 6, Section 2(b)) that states players must be three years removed from high school graduation to enter the draft is in there for a few reasons, and don’t fool yourself into thinking that “three years of free scouting” isn’t one of them.
The thing is, nobody dares verbalize this. Both sides happily go about with their monopoly — for realistic purposes, if you’re a high school player with NFL dreams, there’s only one path for you and it’s through the college ranks — and everyone wins. Except the college kids are not sharing the billion-dollar pie. Details. Credit new Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel for his honesty when he referred to college football as the NFL’s farm system. It’s true. But it’s a good bet there were people around the NFL who weren’t happy he said it out loud.
“The NFL has the greatest farm system in the world,” Vrabel said at his introductory news conference, to a question about whether he’d use college concepts. “We pay our farm system coaches $10 million to develop players. Nick Saban is our farm system. Urban Meyer is our farm system. So, those are the types of players they’re developing. Those are the types of players that are playing in high school. That’s where the game is at.”
Nothing he said is inaccurate, about schemes or what college football’s relationship to the NFL is. Vrabel should be using college concepts. When the Philadelphia Eagles play in Super Bowl LII you’ll hear the term “RPO” a lot — that stands for run-pass option and it didn’t originate in the NFL. And everybody knows the NFL uses college football as is its farm system, and the NCAA is fine with that.
It’s smart for the NFL to get away with this as long as it can. Paying developmental players would cost billionaire owners a lot of money, although 18-to-22-year-olds might appreciate some cash as they play a supremely violent sport. There should not be a rule that a player can’t enter the draft until three years following his high-school graduation, which for practical purposes forces someone with NFL dreams into college football for three years. It’s unfair, and kind of dirty. But nobody has been able to win that court battle. The NFL’s farm system goes on.
It’s not like Vrabel said something we all didn’t know. He’s just the first one in that position to express it so clearly.
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