NFL drafting players from a billion-dollar sinking ship

The signs are up around Times Square again: the NFL Draft is upon us and, tomorrow night, New York City will be invaded by football players whose suits are as sharp as their eyes are dull.

There’s no clear front-runner, no coveted talent into which every expert or observer can pile their chips. Nobody has a clue what last year’s worst team, the Houston Texans, will do with their number one pick, and that makes it a little more intriguing than usual.

What’s most fascinating in this whole scenario is what these young soon-to-be professionals are leaving behind: the billion-dollar College game where the natives are getting restless.

It bears repeating that the GAA and the two most lucrative US College sports of football and basketball have a lot in common. So much dedication, time and passion funnelled into a full-time occupation that doesn’t yield much (if anything) in the way of monetary recognition at the end of it.

I have been beating this dead horse regularly the last few weeks. The PRO hat was on for the New York v Mayo game and the level of local media interest was increased. This meant that, over and over, I would be bringing out the old chestnuts about how it’s a mix of soccer and rugby, Sam Maguire is our Vince Lombardi and Mayo are a bit like the Boston Red Sox before they ended years of hurt and won a World Series.

“And they don’t get paid?” is the regular follow-up question. When countering, you simply have to bring College Football and basketball into it and the confusion immediately clears.

And just like with the GAA, any inclination towards professionalism would kill the two behemoths of amateur sports in the US. Forget the spirit and the tradition of the thing — it would be simply unfeasible to pay a fair wage to every player at every team, especially when the pecking order throws up the volleyball player or even the musicians in the band which provide so much of the atmosphere.

But explain that to Shabazz Napier, the University of Connecticut player who won a national title last month in front of millions of TV viewers as part of a multi-billion dollar industry which yields eye-watering advertising revenue.

His clever exploitation of the increased media interest struck a devastating blow to the NCAA, the money-laden not-for-profit outfit which runs college sport. “There are,” he told them, “hungry nights that I go to bed.”

That pricked the ears of all the right people and within days, limits on meals offered free to student-athletes were lifted. It sounds arcane but that’s what it took.

The television contract for the new college football play-off system (just the play-offs) which will begin next year is worth just over €5 billion over 10 years and the current deal to broadcast the men’s basketball tournament (aka March Madness) is worth over €8 billion for 14 years of coverage.

And yet some players are going to bed hungry. This comes against the larger backdrop of a budding union movement which is sparking an eerily similar debate to the one that greeted the evolving Gaelic Players Association a few years back.

Recently in Chicago, a labour relations board ruled that a group of Northwestern University football players were employees of theuniversity and have the right to form a union and bargain collectively.

Instead of simply enjoying the relative privilege of a free education, it was deemed that they would have to be compensated more adequately for the amount of hours they’re expected to put into football — sometimes as much as 50 hours a week.

The vicious circle leaves them with no time to find a part-time job, no leeway to accept any money from any source other than their parents who are often too poor and most ironic of all, no freedom — if they’re footballers — to leave college early to find work in their chosen field.

The best player in College Football this past season was a freshman so even though he’s equipped to step to the next level and give it a go, Jameis Winston must wait one more year at Florida State and hope against hope he doesn’t get significantly injured.

And while the likes of Jadeveon Clowney and Johnny Manziel have been biting their fingernails this past week or two as tomorrow night’s draft and the millions it brings with it edged ever closer, Winston was caught shoplifting during a moment of youthful indecision in Tallahassee.

It was a slice of lunacy with tragicomic timing — Winston’s indiscretion standing in glaring contrast to the fortunes of his former colleagues who are about to break free and set themselves up for life.

Contact: johnwriordan@gmail.com

Twitter: @JohnWRiordan

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