Hot Reads: Football and School
Photo Credit: Aaron Babcock

Hot Reads: Football and School

August 10, 2017

UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen provided the block quote of the week in a recent interview with Matt Hayes of Bleacher Report. You have likely seen it by now, or at least the two key words — “football” and “school” — and in Rosen’s opinion they don’t go together. You might even be tired of the discussion around it already, but I’m brining it back out because I have a question.

Here’s the quote in full:

I didn’t say that, you did. (Laughs.) Look, football and school don’t go together. They just don’t. Trying to do both is like trying to do two full-time jobs. There are guys who have no business being in school, but they’re here because this is the path to the NFL. There’s no other way. Then there’s the other side that says raise the SAT eligibility requirements. OK, raise the SAT requirement at Alabama and see what kind of team they have. You lose athletes and then the product on the field suffers.

There’s a lot to give a reader pause elsewhere in the interview. At one point Rosen says he wants to “own the world.” At another he compares getting knocked down as a quarterback to getting turned down by a girl at a bar (i.e. both are humbling). It’s the not-always-endearing confidence of a 20-something in college just starting to think for himself. He’ll be fine on that front, I think.

But as for the quote in question, I don’t think he’s wrong. At least not totally. He’s guilty of generalizing because there are plenty of examples that football and school do go together. Talk to Nebraska linebacker Chris Weber if you want a great current and contemporary example. And there are certainly players who value the football portion of the equation much more. But that doesn’t interest me that much.

Later in that quote, Rosen bring up a key point. “There are guys who have no business being in school, but they’re here because this is the path to the NFL,” he said. “There’s no other way.” When pressed, he walked back the “don’t belong” comment later in the interview, but it’s the mention of the NFL that interests me.

Why is college football the only feeder system for professional football? I think the answer to that question  is because it benefits the NFL. The league requires players to have been out of high school for three years to be draft eligible. Why? The NFL will tell you it’s about safety and maturity, and to some degree it is. But it’s also easier for the NFL scouts, coaches and administrators who don’t have to evaluate, instruct and handle 19-year-olds. Let the colleges do that.

What do the colleges get out of that arrangement? Well, the best high school players in the country, because they have no place else to play, but I struggle to come up with another advantage outside of that. I’m also not convinced it’s much of an advantage at all. College football, more than almost any other American sport, is tied to place, either of residence or matriculation, sometimes both. You can be from Pittsburgh and feel intensely connected to the Steelers. That obviously exists. But you can also be from Pittsburgh and go to Pitt. The Steelers fan who loved Terry Bradshaw probably never took a class with him. (Unless said fan also went to Louisiana Tech.) There’s just a different level of connection available that I think matters.

Which brings me finally to the question I wanted to ask: Would you like college football less if you knew you wouldn’t get to see the best players in the country play from ages 18 to 22? To use the local example, would your Husker fandom have suffered if you hadn’t been able to watch Ndamukong Suh or Lavonte David play?

In this hypothetical, players of that caliber — if they’re only interested in making it to the NFL — are off in some developmental league that doesn’t yet exist. College football is only for the players who chose a scholarship, and thus an education, over what would have to become the primary path to pro football. Does college football suffer in this scenario?

Rosen contends that it would. “You lose athletes and the product on the field suffers,” he said. One, it always bothers me when people refer to sport as “product.” Even if it’s more accurate than not, this is one area where I’m more than willing to put my hands over my ears and pretend that the games so many people love aren’t simply another thing for sale. Conscious naiveté.

Two, I think he’s wrong. Does the level of play go down with, say, the top 20 percent of football players not playing in college? Sure, but I don’t think it would change college football fandom at all. Not for the people who pack up moveable feasts (to borrow a term) each Saturday and follow their schools all over the country to commune with other fanatics in parking lots for hours before a game, sit in the same seats for decades at a time, pack it all up, drive home and do it again the next week autumn after autumn.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t see how the chance to watch Rosen or any other NFL-bound athlete factors into any of that.

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