When it comes to the tenuous relationship between the NFL and its free farm system known as college football, pro football’s most significant contribution comes from the rule that prevents players from joining the NFL until three years after their high school class has graduated. This anti-competitive labor rule creates a rolling three-year window of world-class football players who have no viable alternative to playing college football.
As the curators of the NFL’s free farm system try to continue to have a free labor force, they may eventually give the NFL permission to start paying the players college football doesn’t want to pay.
“If you’re a football player coming out of high school that decides you want to go to the pros, go take up your issue with [NFL Commissioner] Roger Goodell, the owners, and the union,” Texas A.D. Steve Patterson said Tuesday, via the Associated Press. “That’s your place to go, if you want to go play professional football, if you want to go be an employee.”
Patterson has a clear interest in keeping student-athletes from becoming student-employees. If players in any sport must be paid, Patterson’s job instantly gets a lot harder — and his compensation inevitably gets lower.
Apart from paying players, Patterson would have many other headaches he doesn’t currently have, if the Longhorns sports teams exercise their eventual right to collectively bargain for better conditions or benefits or anything else that currently falls within the discretion of the school and the NCAA.
Patterson’s knee-jerk reaction seems more like the anger phase of the five-step process of dealing with bad news. But if more NCAA schools adopt his “if you want to be employees get the hell out of here” message, then the NFL no longer would be hurting college football programs by welcoming players straight out of high school; the NFL possibly would be helping them.
Indeed, that could be something the NCAA eventually requests from the NFL. A decade after the league incorporated the three-year rule into the CBA to make it bulletproof from a legal standpoint as a bouquet for college football, college football may decide that having a path to paid football programs makes players less likely to be deemed “employees” when the initial ruling from the NLRB in the Northwestern case snakes its way through the full legal process.
Of course, none of it will matter if/when Jeffrey Kessler’s antitrust-based lawsuit against the NCAA succeeds. For college sports, Kessler’s plan presents a far greater threat, for reasons we’ll eventually address at length in a separate post. After all, PFT union rules permit only one topic per story.