DiNardo's plan for 18-year-olds in NFL doesn't fix issue

by | CBSSports.com Columnist
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Gerry DiNardo thinks he has the formula for fixing college football. Well, maybe ... (Getty Images)  
Gerry DiNardo thinks he has the formula for fixing college football. Well, maybe ... (Getty Images)  

Gerry DiNardo was a college football coach for enough years to be considered something of an expert on the subject, and has been a college football TV analyst long enough to keep his hand in the game.

But Gerry DiNardo the author is a relatively new phenomenon, and his postulation in The New York Times that 18-year-olds could be made eligible for professional football is such a staggering notion that it bears some analysis.

As in, "What?"

We know why it won't happen. Roger Goodell, as the enforcement arm of the NCAA (see Pryor, Terrelle), is no more eager to ruin his free minor league system than he is to dye his hair black and declare that he is Gary Bettman. He knows a good thing when his employers have one.

But the question of "why it shouldn't happen" is worth deeper consideration.

The first is that many universities allow athletes into college now who are neither in danger of or even encouraged to strive for a degree because they need meat for Saturdays. The non-college college student is being pretty well served, then, and if universities want to change that, all they have to do is honor their own enrollment standards.

The second is that allowing 18-year-olds to play professional football impacts so few athletes that it isn't a reform at all. It's a loophole for the rare exception to the general rule than 18-year-olds would be dismembered in a professional football environment. If someone can do it, fine, but you're not really getting at the heart of anything except maybe the LeBron Jameses of football.

And how many of those are there?

There is nothing inherently wrong with DiNardo's idea, but it largely takes the business loop off the highway of fixing college athletics, at least as much as it can be. We suspect it is doomed in its present form, but that's a tooth-grinder for another day.

Reform means allowing athletes to transfer from one school to another without having to sit out a year. Reform means allowing athletes to transfer if their coach gets fired, or takes another job. Reform means allowing athletes to keep their scholarships instead of having them taken away at a coach's whim. Reform means ending the coaching practices that retard or even prevent athletes from attaining the educations they ostensibly came to college to get. Reform means taking the NCAA rulebook and reducing it to common sense, starting with the Bagel Shmear Amendment.

And yes, reform means paying the athletes -- after the other freedoms are attained. Not only the excellent ones who are getting their money at the Street Agent Savings And Loan, or the Alumni Credit Union, or the Sleazy Hanger-On Co-op. Working out the details of how much is a job for accountants, but the concept of free intensive labor for the enrichment of others is wrong on its face.

As the NCAA cannot possibly do this without destroying its business model, and as individual universities work too hard to gather wealthy alums to ever bother to care whether they are noble and honorable or free-range Nevin Shapiros, we can only assume they will never tackle these reforms. As a result, the largest revenue-producing athletic factories eventually will break away and create their own entity with its own competitions and television deals and tax breaks.

But like we said, that's another issue. This is the Gerry DiNardo Moment.

DiNardo as a coach sees the solution in terms of letting the best players rise as quickly as they want, and that is very much a coach's solution. It's basically letting the big dogs eat, which works mostly for the very biggest dogs.

But saving the NCAA from its own magnificently built and maintained sham can't possibly be done on the backs of the very athletes who would be able to skip the process entirely. His Times piece is solid enough as far as it goes, but it doesn't really address the needs of anyone except the very rare specimens who could benefit from such a rule, and would leave most of the rest untouched.

That makes it not reform as much as it does break open a door very few can get through. And if we know the NFL, it would remain a door nobody would get through. The NBA is trying to figure a legal way to make college players attend college longer, and the NFL is even less eager to dip into the college pool before it is full. One hand washes the other so both can grab with equal effectiveness, after all.

We don't want to discourage Gerry DiNardo from continuing to attack the problem as he sees it. All brains are welcome. But the NCAA is the problem, and the coaches and athletic directors are the problem, and the school-sanctioned predators who work the 18-year-olds who won't be eligible for immediate NFL work are the problem. We can get back to the DiNardo Plan in time -- as soon as we figure how much of the system deserves to survive.

Ray Ratto is a columnist for Comcast SportsNet Bay Area.com

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