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The year is 2014. Heisman winning red shirt sophomore quarterback Johnny ‘Football’ Manziel had just led the Texas A&M Aggies to a stunning 52 to 48 comeback against the Duke Blue Devils at the Chick-Fil-A Bowl. One week after the game, Manziel decided to forgo his remaining two seasons of collegiate eligibility to enter the National Football League (NFL) Draft. Praised as a dual-threat quarterback, he was also criticized for his small size and infamous partying tendencies. No one was sure if he had made the right decision to enter the league. Despite the criticism, the Cleveland Browns drafted Manziel 22nd overall. That’s when everything began to unravel. Over his two years with the Browns, Manziel managed to post a losing record as a starter, have run-ins with the police and cause a national media firestorm with his actions (1). After being cut by the Browns, Manziel attempted to continue his pro football career in the Canadian Football League (released for being “unable to abide by the terms of his agreement”) and the Alliance of American Football (the league dissolved due to monetary issues). Currently, Manziel is in league limbo and is attempting to rebrand himself.
In 1989, the NFL changed its draft policy so players no longer had to graduate college to enter the league’s draft. Instead of graduating, players have to be at least three years out of high school and they must have used their National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) eligibility. If a player wishes to enter the NFL before using their college eligibility, he can submit a request to enter the NFL Draft. Almost all players that do this get approved (2). Since then, many notable players, like Johnny Manziel and Ben Roethlisberger, have opted to enter the NFL before graduation.
The fairness of this policy has become a controversial topic. This article will explore this debate.
For this research article, a database of 344 active and retired quarterbacks that entered the NFL after 1990 was built. Of those players, only 16% of players have opted to forgo their junior/senior seasons since the rule change (3). The purpose of this research is to explore the impact of attaining a higher education degree on a prospective NFL quarterback’s career. This will be done by examining the database and other literature.
Some Things are Bigger than Sports
Around the same time the draft eligibility rules changed, the NCAA began to require member schools to report their student-athlete graduation rates. These rates reflected the impact the NCAA policies had on student-athlete scholastic performance.
According to the NCAA, only 3.9% of Division I draft-eligible football players entered the NFL in 2018. With 96% of players not entering the NFL, the NCAA has made it a priority to ensure that those players have a promising future post graduation (4). For example, Division I student-athletes must meet grade standards, show proof of class attendance and attend study hours to keep their eligibility. The reason for this focus is people with college degrees are far more likely to find success and make money. A person with a bachelor’s degree will make on average $59,124 per year (2.8% unemployment rate); meanwhile, a person with only a high school diploma will make on average $38,376 per year (5% unemployment rate)(5). This difference can add up over a lifetime. It is the reason why the NCAA focuses on its student-athletes graduating college.
An Important Argument
If the player values his education, he could go back to school after being in the league.
No Kids Allowed
For some special cases, like those of prospective NFL players, is it worth it to earn said degree? The NFL appears to be split on the topic. According to the NY Times, the NFL encourages players to wait until they’ve used their eligibility because “the longer a player stays in school, the easier it is to judge him accurately.” But, once the draft starts, the teams could draft up to eight underclassmen in the top 10 picks–many of which are quarterbacks (i.e. Kyler Murray)(6). In 2019 alone, 103 underclassmen (four quarterbacks) were granted special eligibility (7). Unfortunately for these “special eligibility” players, CBS Sports wrote that from 2014 to 2018, 118 or 31.6% of these players went undrafted. Legendary college football coach, Nick Saban exclaimed that unlike other sports leagues “There is no other league to develop in, if they don’t make the team, there is nothing for the guy to do. That’s bad for the league.”(8)
A study conducted by Forbes has confirmed a positive correlation between draft spot and career length. Some of the statistics from the study include:
60% of starting players came from the first 3 rounds of the draft in 2014
13.6% of starting players went undrafted in 2014
67.5%, 33.8% and 36.3% of players drafted in the first, second and third rounds started games in 2010
7% is the median percentage of players who started that were drafted between the 4th and 7th rounds in 2010
71.4% of players that achieved “All-Pro” status were drafted in the first three rounds between 2012 and 2014 (9)
The take away from these statistics is the higher a player is drafted, the more likely he will experience league success. This also supports Nick Saban’s opinion on forgoing college eligibility.
“If a guy didn’t get drafted in the first or second round, he should have kept his butt in school.”
With all these opinions to think about, it’s best to take a gander at the numbers backing up these young players’ decisions.
Money isn’t everything.
Since 1989, over 250 NFL quarterbacks have been drafted, started at least one game and are now retired/inactive. The average career length of a quarterback that graduated college is 6 years and the average career length of a quarterback that did not graduate college is 7.4 years (3). Even though 1.4 years is worth a considerable amount of money (average salary in 2018 was $8.7 million per year), we need to keep in mind that these players that are entering the NFL before graduating are usually superior in talent. Thus, there is a higher likelihood of them having more successful and longer careers.
Even if a quarterbacks makes only the practice squad, he will be paid at least $129,200 per season. (11)
The Wonderlic Test Doesn’t Matter.
Besides the difference in career length and salary, one may wonder whether a degree makes a player smarter on the field. To measure this, the study took the Wonderlic scores for 181 quarterbacks (12). The Wonderlic Test “Is a cognitive ability test designed to measure a candidate’s ability to learn, adapt, solve problems, and understand instructions.”(13) It’s an IQ test that the NFL recommends incoming players, especially quarterbacks to take. A player’s Wonderlic test score is a contributing variable of a draft prospect’s profile for teams. The average score for a quarterback is 27 out of 50 – usually anything above 25 is “good” from a team’s perspective. The average score of quarterback that did graduate (n=135) was 27.4; meanwhile, the average score of quarterbacks that did not graduate (n=43) was 26.23. This difference of a little over 1 point is small and thus insignificant. Getting a degree doesn't improve a player's Wonderlic score.
Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick scored a 48 out of 50 on the Wonderlic Test.
The highest of all NFL players to ever take it.
Break a Leg
One of the most prominent reasons players leave college early to enter the draft is the risk of injury. Meaning, if the player decided to stay in college, despite having the option to enter the league, he could wind up with a career ending injury. Even a minor injury in college can hurt a player’s draft stock. On average, every year there are 20,718 NCAA football injuries. 841 are spinal injuries. 4,000 are knee injuries (14). One injury can cost a career.
So instead of risking injury in college, the player would rather give up his education and make money as an NFL player.
Even if a rookie makes it to the NFL without injury, if he's drafted after the third round, he will likely have to sign a “split contract”. This means if the player goes on injured reserve, his salary drops far below the NFL minimum (15).
Not only can injury risk be detrimental to a player’s football career, but also their college team’s postseason success.
Sometimes, when a player is projected to be drafted, the player will sit out of the postseason before the draft to avoid hurting their draft stock via injury. That player is usually one of the star playmakers of the team and by him not playing, his team’s chances of winning are hurt. For example, Will Grier, star quarterback of West Virginia, sat out of the 2018 Camping World Bowl against Syracuse. By leaving the reigns of team to West Virginia’s less experienced quarterback, Jack Allison, the Mountaineers lost the game 18 to 34 (16). On the flip side, despite being projected as a high draft pick, some quarterbacks, like Baker Mayfield, may decide to stay with their college teams because of their devotion to their team’s success in the postseason.
Learn from the Past
Many underclassmen are inspired to enter the league because of other players' stories. Ryan Finley, North Carolina State quarterback, cost himself millions by playing in the 2018 Gator Bowl. The Texas A&M Aggies destroyed the wolf pack 52 to 13. Before the game, Finley was a top 5 quarterback draft prospects. Unfortunately, his game performance damaged his draft stock and he was picked 104th in the 4th round (17) Scenarios like this are terrifying to underclassmen. It inspires them to “strike while the iron is hot”.
Basketball and football are different sports. The professional league eligibility rules are different. Unlike the NFL, to enter the National Basketball Association (NBA) a player has to be 19 years old within the calendar year of the draft and one basketball season out of high school (18). Despite being different from the NFL, the same controversy stands: are the eligibility rules fair to the players? The purpose of these rules is to encourage players to get an education and develop as a player. Yet, in basketball, an alternate option to college is beginning to emerge. Instead of going to college for a “one and done” basketball career, players are opting to play in international leagues. R.J. Hampton, a five-star recruit committed to Kansas, decided to forgo college to play for the New Zealand Breakers before entering the league. Rod Hampton, his father, said: "It’s never been a dream of his to play college basketball, it’s been a dream of his to use college basketball as a vehicle to get to the NBA."(19) The average player in the New Zealand Basketball League gets paid $100,000 per season, but Hampton’s contract is said to far surpass that. This is a lot more money than the zero dollars he would have made playing for Kansas.
Many basketball experts are beginning to suggest that this trend of players going international will cause the NBA to change its eligibility rules (20). Maybe he NBA will become more like Major League Baseball (MLB) by allowing players to declare for the draft straight from high school.
Unlike basketball, football does not have a strong international presence. This lack of presence removes alternative options to college for NFL prospects. So, even if the player doesn’t want to go to college, he has to go to make it to the NFL.
A Bigger Can of Worms
The topic of pay-for-play is a massive debate that this research article cannot address in full. If the topic were to be exploited in this article, it would become an opinion article. However, this is a research article with an opinion in the conclusion.
The NBA, NHL, and MLB all have minor league systems. The NFL does not. The NFL treats college like a minor league system. The difference between a college team and an actual minor league team is minor league players get paid. Is this fair?
Currently, the NCAA forbids collegiate players from receiving compensation for their gameplay. Players cannot receive sponsorship deals, merchandise loyalties, or payment for field performance. The NCAA believes that the scholarships some players receive compensation for this. 2% of collegiate athletes receive scholarships (21).
Many players of superior talent feel they deserve compensation for the revenue they generate for their schools. Every year, college sports generates eight billion dollars in revenue. Players don’t receive any of this revenue because the NCAA says “Maintaining amateurism is crucial to preserving an academic environment in which acquiring a quality education is the first priority.”(22) Cristian J. Santesteban and Keith B. Lefflernd’s research on the topic concluded that “The available evidence shows little relationship between amateurism and the demand for college sports.” (23)
If collegiate players were to start receiving compensation, would the NFL draft eligibility rules be more justified?
Prospective NFL quarterbacks don’t graduate college because they want to avoid injury, gain fame, earn more money, and thus have longer NFL careers. Yet, the NFL holds on to the belief that players aren’t entirely developed until they have graduated from college. This belief drives the NFL and its teams only to draft players with superior talent. To the NFL, college football is treated like the minor league systems of the other professional sports leagues. Yet, the big difference between minor league teams and college teams is that minor league players get paid. The NCAA does not allow college players to receive compensation. With over a hundred players being granted special eligibility for the draft every year, on average a third of those players go undrafted. This is because teams did not think they had the superior talent they were seeking. Of the underclassmen quarterbacks who are drafted go onto have careers that are disappointing (Johnny Manziel) and successful (Andrew Luck). Usually, the underclassmen quarterbacks that are drafted in the later rounds or go undrafted are the ones who end up disappointing.
All-in-all, Nick Saban is right. It is only worth it to enter the draft as a quarterback if you’re confident that you will be picked in the first three rounds. So if you’re Trevor Lawrence of Clemson, strike while the iron is hot. But if you’re a redshirt sophomore quarterback that had one good season and might get picked after the fifth round, hold off and get your degree.
And if the player values his education, he could go back to college after being in the league.
NCAA Graduation Rates Don’t Necessarily Mean Success
NCAA Graduation Rate Tracking
Modelling NFL Quarterback Success with College Data https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/edc3/d13a2122a6d09d6814b228b839f87e915083.pdf
College Graduates Are 177 Times More Likely To Earn $4 Million or More
Fact Check: QB Injury Numbers
The Tough Decision for College Football Players in Leaving School Early to the NFL
The average length of player careers in the NFL
NFL Set to Allow Juniors in the Draft