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Alex Ferguson explains why College Football should look after its prized athletes

Alex Ferguson Posted 5th February 2014 view comments

It's National Signing Day in the US today - which means that the best high school players in America will choose what college they want to play for.

skysports.com's resident US college football expert Alex Ferguson looks at this phenomenon, and also talks about something a little deeper that's going on in the college ranks...

Wednesday, February 5, 2014: National Signing Day. The day on which the star on the fields of high schools decide which colleges they want to play for over the next three-to-four years. In four seasons, they could be playing in a Super Bowl themselves alongside the likes of veteran quarterback Russell Wilson and cantankerous old corner Richard Sherman. Or to put it in Hollywood terms: the end of the The Blind Side. Except on steroids.

Union man: Northwestern QB Kain Colter is standing up for the college footballers

Union man: Northwestern QB Kain Colter is standing up for the college footballers

If you didn't see The Blind Side, it's about the recruitment of a star high school player, Michael Oher. Well, the ending of the movie has him moving caps around and deciding to play for Ole Miss. That sort of press conference will be replayed hundreds of times over today (Oher's now playing in the NFL for Baltimore, where he hasn't had the most auspicious of careers).

According to student website Shmoop, 3-4 per cent of high school football players get the chance to play college football. According to the NCAA via Business Insider in 2012, only 1.7 per cent of all college football players go to the NFL. Here's the maths: 1,108,441 players play high school football; 67,887 players then get offered a scholarship - be it to Alabama or Alabama State; 255 players are drafted to the NFL. The odds aren't long. They are terrible.

Even stars like Peyton Manning aren't guaranteed to start in their first college game. Manning had to wait for others to get injured before he started. And for those players who are unlucky enough to be injured in training or aren't deemed ready for 'The Next Level', they are given 'Redshirts', meaning that they can't play for a team for that season, but it won't affect their eligibility. They might even get a year at grad school for free, too. And as for the NFL? That's a whole other bit of maths will get into close to the NFL Draft time.

Scholarships: One and done?

In college football, players are taken in on a one-year revolving scholarship (that rule was changed in January 1973). That means that they go to university for free. That's a pretty good deal, if you think that the current college costs an average of $22,261 tuition-wise per year for a non-scholarship student in-state, and almost double that out-of-state. And if a player plays well for the team he's signed for, he becomes a god on the campus (which has it's, ahem, 'added rewards')... and perhaps the NFL afterwards. If he's good, or lucky. Or both.

But the opposite can happen. If a player doesn't make the team or looks as though he's not going to make the team for any other reason, the school can drop his scholarship and ask him to play football elsewhere. Despite players saying: "I can't wait to play all four years for the University of ----------," but the fact is this: "If you really underperform, you're probably going to be lucky to come back in your second or third year." And although a player might not be tired of the beautiful sights of a certain college - and hasn't come face-to-face with the law - a college coach can be tired of the player. He also might need you to leave. You see, in the world of college recruiting, teams are only allowed 85 total scholarships for their football teams. So a player can be pushed to the point that he voluntarily gives up his scholarship, and the coach then has a free scholarship to go after another wonderful high school player that might deliver his school the National Championship and another few hundred thousand dollars to his own pocket (think of a college coach like a company CEO - their interests are intertwined with the company's success).

The process of forcing players to 'voluntarily' give up their athletic scholarships or for coaches to use the end of an athletic scholarship as a proverbial stick with which to beat their players is hated by athletes. During the 2013 college football season some college football players - particularly those from Northwestern, a school just outside Chicago - wrote 'APU' on their wristbands, standing for 'All Players United'. It was the start of a movement which reached a head at the end of January, when Northwestern QB Kain Colter - backed by the United Steelworkers' Union - applied to the National Labor Relations Board to get the first college players' union recognised. The fight, Colter said, wasn't about pay, it was about having "a seat at the table", arguing that players ought to be given four-year scholarships, not one year. "The current model resembles a dictatorship" was used and that the scholarships the players get cover the full cost of attendance, instead of a small stipend.

The players' point about athletic scholarships seems to be backed up by former NCAA Compliance Officer Rick Allen, who wrote in his blog 'The Informed Athlete': "While some people believe that college athletes who receive athletic scholarships receive 'full-ride' scholarships, the truth is that no athletic scholarship covers ALL of the costs of attending college... A 'full' athletic scholarship covers the following costs of college: tuition, certain course-related fees, room and board, and the value or provision of books. An athletic scholarship may not cover all student fees, and also may not cover things like parking fines, a single room in the dorm, library fines or late fees."

And if a player gets injured and that carries on past university, then it's him who picks up the bill, not the school who he fought tooth and nail for.

Help for the injured in war

Colter's wish is that the schools - who collectively make billions from TV rights, ticket sales and merchandising - pick up the tab for their injured, creating a pool by which they pay for players who were injured in the line of battle.

The NCAA - college athletics' ruling body (which itself isn't unused to a problem or two) - has replied somewhat tersely: "This union-backed attempt to turn student-athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college: an education. Student-athletes are not employees, and their participation in college sports is voluntary. We stand for all student-athletes, not just those the unions want to professionalize.... Many student athletes are provided scholarships and many other benefits for their participation."

Here's my issue: I can't work out who to side with. And as my friends will testify, I'm a man of many opinions.

The student-athletes have a point. They are paid nothing while the schools they play for make millions (Forbes said in December 2013 that Texas was worth $139m - more than 20 per cent more than second-placed Notre Dame). They hope to be part of the one per cent who go on to play in the NFL or another league. Otherwise, they've got to put their nose to the grindstone. And if they are forced to leave a program through injury or otherwise, it's hard for them to go and play for another one. They are expected to abide by the NCAA's rules, and if they don't like it, then 'Sayonara'! There's always going to be another player to take their place.

But the NCAA has a point. The players are getting for nothing what most students get into serious debt for (Danica, my buddy out in San Diego, is paying off her loans from college more than a decade after she left): an education. Their job is to play for a team and go to class. The rest of it they ought to be able to pay for. And jobs-wise, they put in a rule in 2011 that allows a NCAA player to be paid $2,000 over the cost of their scholarship, to attempt to take away anything illegal (both in the sense of selling merchandise or, er, other things).

Some ideas for the future

So here's the middle ground (and this is just for starters):

1 - Give players a little extra. Schools can afford it. As a football player's full-time job is playing for a team, pay them a per-game stipend during the college football season. How much would this cost the schools? Famed South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier has been campaigning for a $300-per-game stipend since 2011 (that's $306,000 per year)... and is willing for it to come out of his own pocket. He's well-paid, after all. He added in 2013 that a stipend is "tiny, compared to the money's that's coming in... this is just expense money".

2 - Athletic scholarships should be given for all four years. If a school recruits a player, gives him a scholarship, and then realizes it's a terrible idea, then too bad. That's on the coach. If a player decides to go pro after his junior year, then that's the end of the college education. And if he doesn't get drafted or play professionally, then (to coin a high school phrase) it sucks to be him. Obviously, if a player gets in trouble with the police for a major violation (we're talking burglary, robbery, assault or something even more sinister), then he can lose his scholarship. Not because he was playing his music loudly and that annoyed a cop (and yes, this sort of rubbish does happen in college towns, folks!). On the side of the player, if he doesn't go to class, he should be suspended by the school, and if this carries on, he should have his scholarship taken away. You're there for an education, sir, not a holiday.

3 - Abolish the NCAA bylaw in which it says that a player can 'voluntarily give up a scholarship'. We've seen too many college football coaches who abuse that rule. If a player decides to transfer, that's it. But the transfer should go to the NCAA to ensure that a player was not forced to transfer by his previous coach. It might lessen or even eliminate players getting dumped like a boyfriend on Valentine's Day with the line: "I think you'll be happier somewhere else".

4 - If a player gets injured for his team in practice or in a game, the school should pick up the tab for the next 10 years. Why? Because it's the right thing to do. If a player gets injured 'in battle' for team, then why shouldn't that college have an Injured Reserve Fund to put towards players who were hurt playing for the colours of the university?

5 - A player's scholarship should not be revoked because of injury. Ever. If a player is injured playing as a member of your team, coach, then deal with it. That's what football's about.

So finally...

What would the trickle-down effects be? Firstly, college football players would be better treated - especially the injured ones. Secondly, they'll have some money in their pocket. They do - after all - have a full-time job. And that's making the fans of College Football Nation happy. And thirdly, it might make fewer players decide to leave college early for the NFL. And that can't be a bad thing.

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