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Just Off-Camera

"They respect you if you write. The dumber the world gets, the more the words matter." -Dan Jenkins

Monday, April 26, 2004

Head To Head

Just Off Camera is happy to introduce Josh Maurer, the site's first guest writer. He's currently working for the Phillies' television production crew and has experience working radio for several sports, both professional and collegiate. He and Alex will be debating various topics every now and then, beginning with this throwdown over the issue of whether star college athletes should be able to dictate which team ends up with them on draft day.

Josh Maurer

Power To The People

When Eli Manning dictated his trade to the New York Giants Saturday and became the latest in a longer-than-you-realize list of star athletes who "cheated" the system and played free agent with the draft process, he brought a bigger issue to light. How does a society based on the principles of capitalism allow such a labor draft to occur?

For whatever reasons (all inconsequential to this argument), Manning did not want to play for the San Diego Chargers organization, and put pressure on the team's administration to move him so he could play elsewhere. As earlier noted, he is not the first, nor will he be the last to use this strategy.

Football Hall-of-Famer-to-be John Elway threatened to play baseball for the Yankees if the Indianapolis Colts drafted him with the first pick in 1983, thus paving the way for his legendary career with the Denver Broncos. When hockey's Eric Lindros infamously refused to sign with Quebec in 1991, he forced a trade to Philadelphia and set the stage for an all-time love-hate relationship with that city. Speaking of Philly, just whisper the name J.D. Drew around those parts and see what kind of response you get. And in basketball, young Kobe Bryant, already with stars in his eyes, shunned a trip to the "small-market" Charlotte Hornets in favor of a now world-renowned career in sunny Los Angeles.

I'm not saying that just because these athletes could finagle the system that they should have. I lost a lot of respect for Manning, Bryant, and company for refusing the ultimate athletic challenge of captaining a struggling team to greatness in favor of stepping right into an easier, more immediately successful situation. There is no doubt, however, that in the United States of America they should have had that option - the option to choose the employer for which you work.

Imagine a decorated medical or law student coming out of school into a pro-sports type of draft. The best, brightest minds coming into the field would no doubt be selected by the struggling hospitals or firms in need of the most help. These would likely be in smaller, out-of-the-way town, with the jobs paying substantially less money than, say, a hospital or law firm in New York City. But alas, under the system these brilliant doctors and lawyers would be bound, for a few years at least, to plug away in Topeka, Kansas or Norfolk, Virginia. Only after enough time had passed could they become free agents and seek employment elsewhere.

Do I think that entering football or any professional sport is the same as entering a law firm? Absolutely not. The privileged life of an athlete is different from any profession I know of, and those lucky enough to live it owe more to society than they could ever return.

But I do believe in our country every man has the freedom to choose his own destiny, including the place where he lives and raises his family and the employer for whom he labors and provides for him. If Eli Manning does not believe the Chargers organization is right for him, he should not have to provide his services to them.

The idea of sports leagues banding together and dictating to those entering their work force where to play is downright socialist. I know of no other American enterprise that holds its employees to the same standards. Should sports drafts be barred altogether? Probably not - I imagine there is still away to keep them with the proper changes allowed for. But free agency is perhaps the most important, inherently necessary right granted all living in a capitalist society, and athletes should be able to enjoy it at all times.


Don't Like The Draft Rules? Then Don't Enter The Draft

Once upon a time, not too long ago, before there was a first-year player draft in Major League Baseball, a certain powerhouse team used to snag all the best prospects with the allure of playing in a big city and the chance to win championships right away. That team, of course, was the Yankees. And of course they did win a lot - the Yankees finished first in the American League 15 times from 1947-64 and won 10 World Series titles.

In 1965, guess what happened? Baseball instituted a draft, and just like that, prospects couldn't flock to the Yankees. The Yanks didn't win a pennant for another 12 years. If you think that's just coincidence, consider this: The 1964 AL champion Yankees only had two players in the starting lineup who didn't start their careers as Yankees. The next Yankees pennant winners, the 1976 team, had just two players in the starting lineup who began their career in the pinstripes.

The point is this - without a draft, first-year players will consistently follow a pattern of choosing the most attractive teams. Even drafted players, such as J.D. Drew, Eric Lindros, Kobe Bryant, and Eli Manning, try to strong-arm their way to the teams they want to play for.

And here's the problem with that. It creates a competitive imbalance. When a handful of teams consistently attract the best incoming talent, it creates a disinterest in the teams that find themselves on the short end of the stick. It isn't hard to imagine the Chargers finding themselves with high picks in the next couple of NFL drafts, seeing players pull an Eli Manning and brushing off the Chargers, watching fan interest in San Diego decline further, and the franchise eventually moving up I-5 to Los Angeles.

None of this really challenges the argument that it is unfair to players that they cannot choose where they want to play when they start their careers; it simply establishes that it is bad for sport. Here's why it's not unfair to incoming athletes that they have to be drafted by a certain team: Ultimately, they are playing for the league in which they compete. And if the league suffers, so do they.

Don't want to play for San Diego, Eli? Well, they drafted you, and if you don't like it, then play in the CFL, or join the Arena League. There are Arena teams in New York, Chicago, L.A., Philly - just about all the major media markets. You can do what Bo Jackson and J.D. Drew did - sit out a year or two and wait for a team that suits you better to draft you. Maybe you'll get lucky and San Diego will tire of waiting for you and trade your rights. Or you can quit complaining, because you'll get paid millions regardless of whether you're in San Diego or New York, and after a few years you can chase your dreams in the Big Apple (well, North Jersey, really).

Nobody has a gun to these athletes' heads forcing them to sign contracts with the team that drafts them. In fact, holding out doesn't even seem to affect status on a team. Take a look at last year's top incoming QBs - Byron Leftwich and Kyle Boller were the holdouts last season, and they were starters before the 2003 season was over. Meanwhile, Carson Palmer and Rex Grossman signed right away and neither started last year.

Just like a lawyer doesn't have to work for a law firm directly out of law school - working for the government is just one other option - a football player doesn't have to go to the NFL. That's a choice he makes, and by doing so, he has to live by the rules of that organization. College players have to apply for the NFL draft, not to individual teams. By doing so, they subject themselves to the regulations that govern the NFL, and one of those regulations is that incoming players are to be dispersed in a draft.

What if a similar argument were made that players shouldn't have to be exposed to expansion drafts? That would result in expansion teams having to pursue only free agents (and compete with established teams for those players) and incoming players. No player would want to go to the expansion team.

The example of an expansion draft illustrates the necessity of a draft to disperse players throughout the league, rather than letting the players select where they play. Franchises and players all operate under the same rules, structured by the league and players' union, and therefore the rules should be in the best interests of both the league and the players. The rules that are in place allow for players to pursue free agency after they have established themselves in the league - not before.

Eli Manning, Kobe Bryant, and the rest of the entitlement crew sign on for their league's draft, not to play for a specific team. If you don't like the rules of the league, take your ball and play somewhere else. Otherwise, take your millions and play by the rules.


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