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Day 25: Football’s Illusion of Possibilities

September 1, 2010

One of my major contentions with football over the last decade or two has been the push toward the sport under the guise of accessiblity to higher education and a lucrative professional career.  The chain itself doesn’t necessarily bother me as much as the illusion of opportunity along the way.

According to the most recent participation survey by the National Federation of State High School Associations, over 1.11 million students are involved in 11-person interscholastic football.  Statistically, let’s assume that one fourth of those students are seniors.  That gives us 277,750 impending graduates playing high school football in the United States.

At the start of the 2010 season there will be a total of 120 teams at the Football Championship Subdivision (allowed to grant 63 full scholarships) and 120 teams at the Football Bowl Subdivision (allowed to grant 85 full scholarships).  At maximum, that adds up to 17,760 full scholarships to operate all of FBS and FCS each season, not accounting for non-scholarship programs, partial scholarships, probations, etc.  Because many students are redshirted their first or second year, let’s say that 20% of all scholarships each year are new.  That’s 3,552 scholarships available prior to the 2010 season.

That means that as a high school senior, you’ve got a 1.3% chance of picking up football scholarship money.

As for the college kids, there’s also Division II (152 teams) & DIII (237 teams) to account for.  This season, that means there are 53,465 roster spots in NCAA-sanctioned football divisions.  Assuming 20% are graduating seniors (a high estimate), that means you’ve got 10,693 college seniors looking to enter the professional ranks.  I don’t have a background in high-level statistical analysis so I’m not sure how to weigh the increased likelihood of draft attraction by the top BCS-tier teams.

These seniors are competing with each other AND a handful of excelling underclassmen leaving school early for the honor of getting drafted by an NFL franchise.  The NFL draft is 7 rounds, each with 32 selections.  So over 10,000 college football players are competing for 224 draft signings: openings for 2.1% of graduating seniors.

Out of the 277k high school kids fighting to make it to the pros, 224 players will get drafted: .08%.  That’s one draftee for every 1,250 high school players. All for the opportunity for a career that lasts an average of 3.6 seasons if you survive training camp.

You’d have a better chance of flipping a coin 10 times and having it land heads on each toss.

This also doesn’t include the “opportunities” available for pro football players.  Unlike other sports like baseball and hockey, which are replete with post-collegiate development leagues at numerous levels, in football you’ve got the NFL, the Canadian League and the Arena League.  END.  And NO, I won’t count the UFL.

I understand that, sadly, the only way for a large number of high school players to even sniff a college education is through sports.  I think athletic scholarships are a wonderful and necessary aspect of academia.  So why should we limit some of this country’s most talented and gifted overall athletes to a sport with the fewest opportunities for advancement?  Because the professional ceiling is higher for a chosen handful?

Take a look at the “dethroned” national pastime, comparing opportunities for high school seniors.  According to the NCAA, 6.3% of high school players will play at an NCAA school and 9.1 percent of college seniors will be drafted by a Major League team.  All the way through, a high school senior has a .44 percent chance of signing a pro contract through the draft.

A high school baseball player is over three times more likely to gain a scholarship and over five times more likely to get drafted than their football counterparts.  Not to mention the more established professional footprint of baseball with numerous independent leagues not just in the U.S. and Canada but overseas in established baseball regions such Pacific Asia and Latin America.

Even with a sport like hockey which has a smaller youth infrastructure to work with, a remarkable 11% of high school players will move on to play at an NCAA school.  The sport may not be accessible to much of the country and the Division I community is limited (58 teams), but the accessibility to outlets such as Canadian Major Junior leagues for American youths has never been greater thannks to the growth of programs such as the US National Development Team and success in recent World Junior Championship tournaments.  Compensation for participation in major juniors is future imbursement for a college scholarship at any university the player enrolls in after their playing career has ended.

For all the increased risks of brain injuries football players face, the sport has overconcentrated the athletic diversity of the country’s rising amateurs toward the sport with the fewest professional opportunities.  Even fewer opportunities will be there in the future as universities begin to re-evaluate the costs and benefits of operating football programs at all levels.  The NFL won’t be expanding anytime soon and every attempt to launch competing pro leagues has resulted in spectacular failure.  The same could be said for basketball with the exception of the sport’s growth internationally as salaries spike in countries such as Greece, Russia and Argentina.

As an aspiring teacher, I encounter plenty of children who yearn for athletic success.  They’re aware of the reward yet remain blissfully ignorant of the risks.  One of the key aspects of critical thinking that so often gets overlooked in student evaluation is the risk/reward factor in decision making.  Sadly, many parents are too mesmerized by the high-profile dollar signs instead of considering the bigger picture when guiding their children in a certain direction.

As someone who’s worked in sports, I try to make sure that children and parents are fully aware of the narrow likelihood of achieving success in the business.  I honestly hope that parents instill the idea of diversity of participation when it comes to involvement.  If you really want to go after a low-possibility like football or basketball, at least attempt to compete in off-season teams with a high yield for athletic scholarship.

Do the research, crunch the numbers, compare skill sets.  Just don’t pigeonhole yourself because of a narrow focus on one single dream.

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