A former NFL player and father of two college football players, a former NFL head coach who won two Super Bowls and NFL star Tom Brady’s agent have announced the formation of a developmental football league that is likely to attract high school football stars who do not want to go to college on route to the pro game.
The proposed Pacific Pro Football League (PPFL) will kick off in the summer of 2018 with four teams, each playing an eight-game schedule, running offensive and defensive schemes and teaching techniques used in the NFL. Each player will receive a $50,000 salary for the season and workman’s compensation as well as tuition reimbursement to attend community college in the off season. The rosters are expected to be smaller than those found on college and professional teams to allow every player to receive playing time. Unlike previous ventures funded by the NFL, the PPFL will be funded outside of the ownership circle of the league.
College football is the only one of the major US team sports that does not have professional minor leagues to accommodate athletes who do not want to go to college after they finish high school. The other sports: baseball, basketball and hockey have had minor league or development league systems for a long time. Minor league baseball is as much a part of American sports culture as major league baseball. Minor league hockey is as much a part of Canadian sports culture as the major league game. The National Basketball Association’s Developmental League (the ‘D-League’) will take a chance on a high school player, though he cannot reach “the show” until he turns 20. But that same high school player could also opt to begin his professional career abroad. The PPFL is likely to do for football players what the NBA D-League does for basketball players.
It’s easy to envision the appeal of the PPFL to high school football players who have not been pressured academically by their parents, teachers and coaches. Presuming the league is successful, a player could conceivably “graduate” to the NFL within two years, while earning more money than he could earn after finishing high school. He could also earn credits towards a college degree, and continue towards further education on his own schedule. At worse, he could be satisfied that he gave himself a chance to make a professional roster.
The PPFL could also be a win for college football. The colleges could let the pro league take care of the athletes who are less motivated towards an education. The quality of play in college football would likely be the same. The athletes who are motivated to play college football are encouraged in part by the offensive or defensive schemes that the coaches want to run, as well as a chance to be a change-maker for a losing program or to be part of the history of a winning one.
There are downsides to opting for the PPFL, the most obvious being uncertainty about the new league’s success. No doubt the new league will find capable coaches; there are plenty who are transitioning between jobs all the time as well as retired coaches who would enjoy a short-season chance to remain connected to the game. But minor professional football leagues have not fared well attendance wise, whether they competed with colleges or the pros, or major league baseball for fans. Nor have they gotten the television ratings that they needed to receive a steady stream of advertising revenue.
But an added concern is the future and health of the players. No matter the sport, few players who begin their professional careers in a minor league advance to a career at the highest levels to earn multi-year guaranteed contracts. A PPFL player who washes out after one season might not be given a second chance, even after recovering from injury. A college player is typically allowed to remain on the team and make continued progress towards a bachelor’s degree.
And what if a PPFL player sustains an injury that could seriously impact his opportunities to earn a living after football? Will this new league provide appropriate health benefits, especially if the now-former player might not be able to earn the added dollars that he might have earned with a college degree? I cannot imagine the PPFL providing a health benefit for many years, given that its players are likely to play no more than three, and that they will earn much lower salaries than the NFL players while they remain on a roster.
Then there’s egos. Each season, when the NFL plans for the draft, the coaches, general managers and scouts tend to favor players who have performed well in big games in front of very large crowds. High school graduates who are used to being the stars of their program are likely to find that they are no longer the stars, as they would in college football. Only they will learn this truth in front of a much smaller audience. If they cannot rise to the occasion in front of PPFL crowds, then how would they fare in the NFL?
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