College football had itself a week.
To review, the threat of seeing the 2020 season wiped out due to the COVID-19 pandemic led some of the sport’s biggest stars to push for a safe way to stage it while also lobbying for the future formation of a College Football Players Association.
Then, after some athletes had already opted out because of health risks, conferences such as the Big Ten and Pac-12 as well as individual schools canceled their fall seasons. Others – including the SEC, ACC and Big 12 – decided to move forward, with delayed starts and altered schedules.
And on Thursday, a group of U.S. senators announced plans to put “a college athletes bill of rights” before Congress which would, among other things, attempt to guarantee monetary compensation and long-term healthcare.
That’s why there’s a touch of irony in a bit of news many of you probably missed. Pacific Pro Football – a league founded on the premise of featuring college age athletes who would play for a salary and receive standard job perks – is no more, failing to get off the ground three years after it was announced.
Founder Don Yee, the highly regarded NFL agent, quietly abandoned the idea this summer in favor of a new venture that will attempt to use camps and scrimmages to connect free agents with NFL teams. Before calling an audible, Yee had brought in big names like Mike Shanahan to be part of the organization’s advisory board, and even struck a sponsorship deal with adidas.
Objectively, I thought Pac Pro had a better chance at long-term survival than any alternative football league that had come before it. I always goob out at the thought of a sports upstart, but I was genuinely excited about this particular concept.
According to its website:
“Pac Pro will be the first league to professionalize players who are less than four years removed from their high school graduation. Players will receive a salary, benefits, and even paid tuition and books for one year at community college. Players also will be able to market themselves for compensation, and begin creating a financial retirement plan if they so choose.”
(Keep in mind Pac Pro’s mission statement came long before the NCAA – fearing massive, class-action lawsuits – decided it would be kinda/sorta OK for players to “market themselves for compensation.”)
Salaries were expected to be in the $50,000 range per player, per season. And considering each team would play eight games over a July and August time frame (contested among four Southern California-based franchises the first year with room to grow) that’s quite a windfall for young players who want to get paid for their labor.
Due to the coronavirus it probably wouldn’t have been able to play this summer anyway (although with the teams so close together I assume a bubble format might’ve been possible), but there has never been a better time for just such a league. The college football conversation always seems to come back to finances. And with its volunteer workforce growing more intent about revenue sharing, a play-for-pay league that skews younger makes sense.
The vast majority of guys who compete on college football teams will never make their fortune in professional football, but there are many who can and will. And all of them have helped make the NCAA-sponsored gridiron game a billion dollar industry while turning its top coaches into multi-millionaires.
Look at it this way: if a player competes for a university-sanctioned team, it’s something of a work-study program with an athletic scholarship being the reward. Pac Pro, on the other hand, would’ve amounted to an “earn while you learn” trade school for guys who wanted to major in football.
So when the circuit was originally announced I truly believed that if it made it through a couple of seasons – and some of its players secured spots on NFL rosters – it might become a legitimate alternative to the “amateur model.” And I wouldn’t begrudge any young man who chose a paycheck over a grant if that bettered his situation.
But 2017 turned to 2018 and 2018 rolled over to 2019, and using my shrewd powers of deduction I figured Pacific Pro Football would remain forever stuck on the drawing board.
Just because this circuit has been abandoned doesn’t mean the idea has to die, though. The new owners of the XFL – Dany Garcia, Duane Johnson and Gerry Cardinale – haven’t sought my counsel in rebooting the league, but opening it up to college-age stars is something worth considering. If the proposed college football players union ever comes to fruition, one can assume compensation will be discussed. When it is, though, count on the NCAA to do everything in its power to keep as much for itself as possible.
Based on XFL salaries this year – which averaged roughly $55,000 – it could be a legitimate option for a kid who wants to shorten his pipeline to the NFL. And instead of having rosters full of big league near-misses, a few future stars could be sprinkled in.
And how about the fledgling Freedom Football League, which is currently hosting virtual town halls? Built on a social justice platform, one of its four pillars is “Economic Justice.”
Establishing economic justice via financial incentives through joint ownership and further eliminating financial exploitation and profiteering to the benefit of the few at the expense of many.
Sounds like a young, talented football player exploring his options might want to explore the FFL.
Certainly, anything apart from the status quo will upset people who expect 18 to 22 year olds to suit up in college colors and entertain them. Yet the 18 to 22 year olds themselves might be tempted by the thought of getting spendable recognition for their work.
Now, of course, we know Pacific Pro Football won’t be providing that temptation. But any future league willing to make players actual stakeholders – and put money in their pockets – could give college football a run for its money.
* I wrote about a league with designs on giving young basketball players a payday back in March. It plans to begin play next year.