New doors opening for high school athletes
Monday, January 23, 2017
For high school football stars graduating in the spring of 2018, two big changes are in the works that may impact their life and career after high school. One will ease the transition to college football; the other will provide an alternative to the NCAA.
As football has grown in prominence side by side with the rise of the internet and social media, the saturation of coverage surrounding the sport has spilled over into high school. Not only are high school football games televised live on TV now, but the recruiting process has also taken on a life of its own.
National Signing Day, the first Wednesday of February (Feb. 1 this year), has turned into a media circus as high school recruits formally commit to the school they’ll be attending in the fall – and to the helmet and uniform they'll be donning.
The pressure of thousands of recruits all signing on one day has created some problems, both for the student-athletes themselves and the football programs. When an athlete changes his mind and switches schools at the last minute, it can leave coaches scrambling to find a replacement at a key position.
On the flip side, schools sometimes offer more scholarships than they have available – since they don’t know for sure whether all will sign. This can result in an athlete having a scholarship pulled out from under him with few options left on the table — as Erik Swenson found out last January when Michigan pulled his scholarship offer.
But the wheels of change are in motion to fix this.
The NCAA initially proposed creating two additional signing days, one in June and one in December, to ease the pressure. But the June date was dropped after the Division I Council meeting Wednesday.
That change came after the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) held their annual convention earlier this month, and the FBS college football coaches voted unanimously in support of the December addition and in opposition to the June addition.
With both sides on the same page, the proposed change is expected to become official later this year.
For AFCA Executive Director Todd Berry, adding a second signing period is all about transparency and clarity.
"We'd like to get back to that stage where everything seems to be a bit more real," Berry told MultiBriefs Exclusive.
Soon, athletes who are strongly committed to a school can make that commitment official in December, while others who are still on the fence can see how things shake out while they wait for the traditional February signing date. This allows both athletes and coaches time to examine the landscape without the pressure of everything happening at once.
"Knowing that there's two dates, it sort of clears the deck, so to speak," said Berry, a former college football coach himself, most recently as head coach at Louisiana-Monroe from 2010-2015.
"The young person knows that if they're not signing in that December time frame, maybe those institutions aren't quite as interested in them or have filled up. It allows for the prospective student-athlete to get a much clearer picture of where they fit into that recruiting class."
But change is never simple. Throwing a potential monkey wrench into the works is a new professional football league that aims to begin in the summer of 2018: Pacific Pro Football.
Unlike previous pro leagues that have taken direct aim at the NFL — the USFL and the XFL — Pacific Pro Football has the college game in its crosshairs. Led by Don Yee, Tom Brady’s longtime agent, the league offers an alternative to the NCAA for high school graduates hoping to prepare for the NFL — and they will get paid to do so.
"For the first time, the players and families will have a professional option, and one that includes benefits," Pac Pro COO Bradley T. Edwards said. "Most importantly, players will have an option to participate in a league that plays professional football, which is a very different game than amateur football."
Currently, athletes must wait until they are three years removed from high school before entering the NFL. And if they want to keep their skills sharp during that time, college football is pretty much the only game in town.
The NCAA allows these athletes to receive a scholarship from the universities they attend, but as "amateurs," they cannot receive a salary or stipend of any kind. Nor can they market themselves or profit from their athletic skill.
Pacific Pro Football is planning to pay its athletes an annual salary of $50,000, along with paid tuition at local community colleges. The league will feature four teams based in Southern California, each with 50 players, and they will play eight games "under professional football rules, protocols and style," according to a statement sent out by the league.
But any professional sports league will need to have a revenue stream to be viable. The question is, will fans follow these athletes if they don’t end up at their favorite college? Yee certainly thinks so.
"People follow high school football talent and where it goes, and follow that talent earlier and earlier," Yee said in an interview with Vice Sports, referencing the numerous businesses built up around recruiting. "We feel that giving the talent an opportunity and choice to professionalize earlier may bring along that fan interest."
Berry, however, thinks it's still far too early in the process to determine the success of Pacific Pro Football.
"I quite honestly have not had one conversation with any coach who has a concern at this point in time," he said, adding that he believes strongly in the long-term viability of the college product.
"Most young people really enjoy their college experience. And for that reason, the impact [of Pac Pro] could potentially be minimal."
Either way, the big winner in all of this may, for a change, end up being the athletes who actually pour their energy and sweat into playing the sport.
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