Every so often, when a pay-for-play scandal jolts college football, it prompts the question: What can or should the NFL do to help rectify the system?
Can the league root out unscrupulous agents?
Can it somehow punish current pros who took money when they were in college?
Should the NFL even care?
The last question is easy: Absolutely. College football is essentially a free farm system for the NFL, and it's even better than that. It's a multibillion-dollar publicity machine that makes it possible for a rookie such as Denver's Tim Tebow, who has yet to take a snap in the pros, to already lead the league in jersey sales. Reggie Bush, the player at the center of the latest scandal, was a coast-to-coast celebrity long before the New Orleans Saints made him the No. 2 pick in the 2006 draft.
So, yes, the NFL cares about how college football is perceived, even though the latest dustup barely moves the needle for a league focused on a hundred more pressing issues, chief among them its unresolved labor dispute.
Still, the irony this week of Alabama Coach Nick Saban equating NFL agents to "pimps" was not lost on people around the league who remember vividly how that coach lied his way out of Miami, vowing he wouldn't leave the Dolphins for the Crimson Tide, and how he and other college coaches now make millions on the backs of essentially unpaid players. Coaches are as culpable as anyone in this mess.
That said, it's clear there needs to be more effective regulation of agents — including the currently unregulated so-called marketing agents, financial advisors and publicists — by the NFL Players Assn.
"They should be doing something to the agents," Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana said. "Everybody goes after the players when it's the agents who are putting them in those situations. These kids don't know anything. They're just trying to get into the NFL. The agents are the ones out there making these kids have to make a decision that they're not sure about."
(Agents counter that these players and their families aren't wide-eyed innocents who have had piles of money thrust upon them, but savvy negotiators with their hands out the whole time.)
The pot of gold at the end of every paid-player scandal is the NFL, the promise of riches that a pro career brings. If the right people were to agree that the current system is in need of a major overhaul, the NFL — and, more directly, its players union — could play a significant role in reducing the number of future infractions.
A look at some possible remedies, and why they would and wouldn't work:
FIX: If a college player is caught accepting money, he is automatically suspended for the first eight games of his rookie season.
Why it would work: If a player (and his family) know that kind of hammer hangs over his head, one that could seriously affect his draft status, it could scare him straight. You would have to be pretty desperate and/or dumb to, say, take $50,000 now, knowing you could lose millions in the near future.
Why it wouldn't work: The inevitable legal challenges of punishing a player who isn't even in the league yet aside, the NFLPA would have to check off on this. And why would it? The union is dedicated to protecting the rights and money of its players, not taking them away. Would never happen.
FIX: Give college players a reasonable stipend, maybe $2,000 per month, to cover their expenses.
Why it would work: A guy like Bush made millions for his school, so why shouldn't he get a fraction of a percent of that back? Yes, he's getting a free education, and that's no small consideration, but he isn't allowed to have a job during the season. If he had enough money to, say, take his girlfriend out to dinner, he might be less motivated to take cash.
"I remember when I was in school, my rent was $640 a month, and my scholarship check was $726," said Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez, who went to California. "So I had the rest of that money to eat, pay all my bills, car, gas, all that stuff. I was lucky I had parents who could help me out."
Why it wouldn't work: So much for amateur athletics. And if you pay the football players, do you pay all the athletes at the school? If it applies only to revenue sports, do, say, women's basketball players at a big money-making program such as Connecticut's get paid, whereas women in lesser programs do not? Where do you draw the line? Besides, whatever the stipend, it will never be enough for those intent on cheating.
FIX: Have the NFLPA certify and regulate all marketing agents, financial representatives, publicists, etc.
Why it would work: It would send a stronger message of accountability and allow the union to build a database to better monitor the people who could affect the assets of a future or current NFL player.