21 Apr 19
San Gabriel Valley Tribune
At the end of November of 1925, after three years spent dominating college football at the University of Illinois, Red Grange signed a contract with the Chicago Bears. It was decision without precedent in football’s brief history.
For the fledgling NFL, which still lagged behind the college game in terms of popularity, it was a significant step towards legitimizing the league. For the star players that followed Grange, his signing – and the 67-day barnstorming tour that accompanied it – laid the groundwork for future college football players to jump to the NFL. The draft was born a decade after that, defining that path even further.
Almost a full century later, the primary path to pro football remains largely unchanged and unchallenged, even as both college football and the NFL have become billion-dollar cultural behemoths. Star players still must spend at least three seasons removed from high school graduation, per the NFL’s collectively bargained eligibility rules. During those three years, while playing as unpaid amateurs on a massive national stage, they must balance schoolwork with the ever-increasing demands of football. Only recently did the NCAA make sure these players were adequately fed in the meantime.
This week, hundreds of prospects will reach the long-awaited end of their amateur football journey when they’re selected in the NFL draft. They’ll sign their first pro contracts and ink their first sponsorship deals, finally able to profit off of the developing fame and football ability that got them this far.
But as the draft approaches, I’ve found myself wondering: Why exactly did they have to wait this long to cash in?
“The ascending American football player is really the only athlete in the world that’s in a revenue sport that doesn’t have an early professional option,” says Don Yee, a longtime NFL agent whose client list includes the likes of Tom Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo.
Yee has a plan to change that. Next summer, after years spent ramping up, Yee, along with a group of organizers that includes former NFL coaches, NFL media executives and NFL players, will launch Pacific Pro Football, a start-up football league that plans to function as an alternative path to the NFL. Contrary to the college route, the league would offer young, pro prospects a paid option to pursue their development.
Last month, sitting in a corner booth at the Brookside Golf Course clubhouse in Pasadena, with the iconic Rose Bowl looming in the distance, Yee laid out his plan for a four-team league, based in Southern California, which would focus entirely on preparing football prospects for the NFL. Only ascending young players deemed to have pro potential would be offered contracts. The league would follow NFL rules, with practices wide open to NFL scouts and adhering to NFL rules, all catered towards NFL evaluation.
“Envision the Senior Bowl over a two-month season,” Yee explained.
Prospects whose sole intent is to make the NFL wouldn’t need to masquerade as college students, attending class and trying to make grades, all while many hover just above the poverty line. Instead, Pacific Pro Football plans to pay players an average salary of $50,000 for a two-month season, with room for high-profile players to be offered more. Outside sponsorships and personal branding opportunities will be strongly encouraged – adidas is already signed on as a league partner. For players who are interested, Pacific Pro Football even plans to offer free community college or vocational program tuition.
“Most of these players want to know, ‘How can you get me ready for the NFL?’ ” Yee says. “From a football standpoint, what we’ll have to demonstrate is that if you come play with us, we’ll definitely shorten your learning curve. We’ll help you reduce the risk of failing out of the NFL.”
Yee, who has long been critical of the NCAA, contends that college football is diverging from the NFL in this regard, as differing styles and rules have given rise to a different game. On this point, plenty of NFL talent evaluators agree. At positions like offensive line, where the learning curve is especially steep, development at the college level lags further behind its pro counterpart than ever before. Given a legitimate opportunity, it’s not difficult to imagine top prospects opting for a year of hyper-focused football development over finishing a general studies degree — or pursuing one at all.
Take Trevor Lawrence, for example. If the 20-year-old Clemson quarterback was eligible for the draft this year, he would be the “clear-cut No. 1 pick,” according to ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper. With that in mind, what does Lawrence have to gain from a football perspective from returning to Clemson for two more seasons? What if another option existed?
College players are beginning to seriously consider these alternatives. Every December now, top prospects debate whether or not to play in bowl games. After suffering an injury last fall, defensive end Nick Bosa, a surefire top-three pick in this year’s draft, decided to withdraw from Ohio State to focus on rehab and draft training. How long might it be before a top prospect like Lawrence – or Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa – decides to take his football future into his own hands by sidestepping college football entirely?
Pacific Pro Football isn’t the only league aiming to lure prospects away from the college game. Last month, in an interview with the Southern California News Group, new XFL commissioner Oliver Luck described the NFL’s eligibility rules as “meaningless to us.” He expects the XFL will sign “a handful of guys” who aren’t yet eligible to play in the NFL. Agents contacted by Luck were told top prospects could earn as much as $200,000 per season.
How the XFL – which, unlike Pacific Pro Football, plans to include veteran players – will decide which players are physically and mentally ready for pro football is uncertain. Even Luck admits the league’s decisions on young prospects will be “subjective”.
“We don’t want to put a 19-year-old in the position where he’s not prepared to compete against a 27-, 28-year-old,” Luck said. “But there are some 19-year-olds that could. The 3-year rule comes out of the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement. There’s not a lot of science behind that. It’s just the union bargaining with management.”
In a recent interview with Bleacher Report, star Clemson wideout Justyn Ross was asked if would be tempted to accept such an offer. “Yes and no,” Ross said, before noting that other college football players he knew “would take that money and run.”
The day is rapidly approaching when top prospects will actually have that choice to make. The XFL launches next February and is sure to target young college players next season. Pacific Pro Football plans to kick off next June. Yee believes it would only take one elite player to potentially change the path to the NFL ever.
“I strongly believe that once we secure a prominent player, many will follow,” Yee says. “This part isn’t opinion. It’s really more researching the past.”
It was 94 years ago that Grange made the radical decision to sign with the Bears – a move Grange’s own father criticized in the media. Now, as today’s young stars consider possibly alternative paths to pros, it’s not all that radical to think another superstar is bound to subvert the system, sooner rather than later.