On NCAA Eligibility in re: Professional Sports

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Consider:

  • In college football, once your eligibility is exhausted or you forego said eligibility for the draft, you cannot go backwards.
  • In college basketball, you can declare your intent to be drafted, but you can withdraw your eligibility prior to the draft occurring and retain your amateur status. Also, whereas at one time players could skip college and go directly to the NBA, they now have to wait at least one year after their graduating class matriculates. Nearly all who do so choose college; rarely, athletes play overseas.
  • In college baseball, you can be drafted prior to college and choose whether or not you sign. If you sign, you play professionally; if you enroll in classes at a four-year institution, your draft rights expire and you are not draft eligible for three seasons. If you choose to attend a two-year institution, you can be a part of the draft-and-follow process, where you have until the week before the next season’s draft to lose your eligibility.
  • In college hockey, it’s even kookier. The basic eligibility requirements for the draft: be 18 by 15 Sep of the draft year, and no older than 20 by 31 Dec of that same draft year. If you’re from North America and over 20, you can’t be drafted. If you’re from Europe, you can be. When it comes to NCAA eligibility, you can be drafted and play college hockey. You may choose to leave college at any time; some players leave mid-year if they’re dissatisfied with their hockey/college experience. The drafting team retains your right until 30 days after you’re done with college.

Even better, you can play professionally in one sport and retain your amateur status in another one. The canonical example is a football player who plays minor league baseball during the summer.

Exactly how does any of this make any sense? Well, there is one way: leverage. That list goes in decreasing order of leverage that the NCAA and the professional leagues have over their charges. In football, the only viable path to the NFL is through college football, as there are no alternatives. In basketball, it’s much the same, except for those pesky overseas leagues—and, now, the D-League. Baseball is a sport with a long-term approach towards talent acquisition at as young an age as possible. Part of this is because it takes a few years for most players to become viable professionals, and the rest of this is tradition. College baseball has little leverage, because its shorter seasons mean less skills development than a comparable player getting five months’ minor-league PT. College hockey has next to no leverage, given that the major junior system has been the dominant source of talent for the last few decades. Without the lax eligibility rules, the NCAA would have a vastly inferior hockey product for players between 19-23.