Emmanuel Mudiay missed out on what was probably only going to be one season playing for Larry Brown at SMU, signing last month with Guangdong of the Chinese Basketball Association. Adrian Wojnarowski pegged the deal at $1.2 million, and many have wondered whether this type of deal will become the norm for players who, like Mudiay, project as NBA lottery picks — especially if the league follows through on its hopes to increase the age limit.
Mudiay said in a statement that he went pro because he “was tired of seeing [his] mom struggle,” and there were were also reportedly concerns about his eligibility after spending two years at Deion Sanders’ Prime Prep. Whatever the case or combination, Mudiay would have had far less palatable options available to him if he happened to play football instead of basketball.
Deadspin went over the litany of administrative and financial issues facing Prime Prep, which was deemed ineligible to receive money for school lunch subsidies (for which two-thirds of its students qualified) after allegedly misspending federal funds, and is probably getting shut down by the state of Texas. CBS’ Gary Parrish notes that although basketball players Jordan Mickey and Karviar Shephard managed to get academically cleared to play at LSU and TCU in spite of attending one year at the charter school, the two years Mudiay spent there would be a massive obstacle to overcome with the NCAA:
So, that’s the uphill battle Mudiay and his camp were going to have to fight for the right to play basketball in exchange for five months on the SMU campus instead of earning more than a million dollars without having to endure the uncertainty or red tape.
[Update: Mudiay was reportedly cleared by the NCAA after he had already decided to play overseas, though it's impossible to know what would have happened if he went through the process conventionally, and still plans to play in China.]
It’s not as though the point guard is giving up nothing by playing over there — you don’t realize how special it is to have access to your social media accounts or decent hamburgers until you don’t, and he would’ve learned about a million things from Larry Brown — but at least this was an option available to him.
It’s a somewhat normal occurrence for top-flight football programs to recruit players that they know will have eligibility issues. Last month, the Daily Gamecock reported that four South Carolina recruits have already been declared ineligible, while another four were in limbo. Five-star running back Jovan Robinson was admitted into Auburn in 2012, spent just a week there, was declared ineligible, enrolled at Georgia Military College, and returns to the SEC program with three remaining years of eligibility. This qualifies as a success story.
This past February, NFL.com’s Mike Huguenin looked at the Draft position of all 262 five-star recruits between 2002 and 2010; of the five players who were ruled ineligible or never enrolled because of academic issues, none was drafted in the NFL. Defensive tackle Callahan Bright, for example, never enrolled at Florida State because his combination of GPA and SAT scores didn’t qualify, went to military school and then junior college, got arrested in a marijuana distribution bust, never made it to Division 1, went un-drafted for the NFL in 2010, and spent 1.5 years in the Arena Football League.
That’s obviously not the same situation as Mudiay, whose education apparently failed him as opposed to the other way around — and he did not get arrested — but dealing with NCAA eligibility issues is a lot more difficult to rebound from when you’re essentially beholden to them for three years en route to the pros as opposed to one.
While college football players could technically play in the CFL — Bryce Brown considered doing that in 2009 — because there’s no age limit, the salary cap is just $5 million and the average pay is $80,000. There isn’t anywhere near the opportunity to get money like Emmanuel Mudiay did in China.
Football is really the only major sport where trade is restrained like this. Golfers and tennis players can make millions of dollars as soon as they’re talented enough. Soccer stars are ostensibly professionals in their early teens. Baseball and hockey players get drafted out of high school and can choose whether to play in college or develop in a league-administered minor league system.
There are a few tides of change to make things a little bit better for top-flight college football players. Texas A&M shelled out $50,000 for an insurance policy to entice stud offensive lineman Cedric Ogbuehi to return for his senior season, and Florida State paid a similar amount to insure Jameis Winston. This is, more or less, compensation (even if it’s called something different) — and it’s a substantial leverage chip.
Meanwhile, there’s a proposal to allow power conferences to pay their players “a few thousand dollars” more than what’s currently allowed as a subsidy for cost of attendance to players in every sport. The NCAA Board of Directors approved new autonomy for those five conferences — the Big Ten, Big 12, SEC, ACC, and Pac 12 — today which should make the proposal more likely to pass. All of this is a step in the right direction, though there remains a long way to go in between the current kleptocratic, gold-plated NCAA system and something resembling justice.
Now, as our site’s Jason Lisk argued this past April, the “fair market value” for most NCAA football and basketball players has been overstated relative to what they’d get paid if there were actually competitive bidding. Things might get crazy for players at the absolute top if billionaire boosters were involved, but even someone as highly-touted as Mudiay was only able to get paid about as much overseas as the 20th overall pick in the NBA Draft.
Because the NFL doesn’t really have any international or domestic competition, it doesn’t really have any incentive to lobby for any changes to the sport when it has a de facto farm system that it doesn’t have to directly invest its own funds in. Cynically, that may be a bigger reason for its age limit than the generally accepted argument that players’ bodies aren’t ready.
Other than hoping for goodwill from the NCAA or new legislation, there isn’t much that young football players can do about there being a monopoly over their talents. The best bet for them would be some sort of league to compete with the NFL. The UFL didn’t work out; it’s been over a decade since the XFL experiment, and nearly 30 years since the USFL folded.
Not that my theoretical eventual son would likely possess the athletic talent to make it professionally (or even in high school), but this is all just another reason why I’d steer him away from football.