Many hands get wrung over college football's national signing day, because odd things happen: one recruit's mama runs off with his letter of intent,* or another recruit announces via a T-shirt that looks to have been airbrushed at the county fair, or any number of young men mangle the school they're about to attend and call it something like "The University of Clemson."
*This story gets weirder by the hour – now the late Johnnie Cochran's law firm is involved. I'll let the great LSUFreek take it from here.
National signing day is bizarre, uncomfortable, and a little creepy. So I think we should double down on this thing.
What we really need is an NFL Signing Day.
Ditch the draft. Let teams recruit players, pick a day for everybody to sign, and settle in for the drama. Which team hat will Jarvis Jones pull out of the bag? Will Star Lotulelei pull up his shirt to reveal a giant Cowboys tattoo? Will there be awkward look-ins to the Te'o house while they wait for the phone to ring? Would you not watch this for hours?
It would be great TV, fantastic Twitter, and not only that: It would be a much more American way.
We all know the NFL, like other sports leagues, is a walking contradiction: The owners are billionaires who made their money in the free market, but the league itself is socialist to the core. You can't just start an NFL franchise and compete with them. The owners share TV money. Government foots the bill for much of their costs. And every year the teams divide up the newly available labor, each team according to its need.
That 17-year-old five-star prospect, making his classmates wait so he can go live on ESPNU, might be an arrogant goofball. But at that moment, he has the most freedom he'll have for years. Once he signs a national letter of intent, he's bound to his school; if he hates it enough to transfer, he'll probably have to sit out a year of his football prime. Then, assuming he's good enough to be drafted, he has no say in where he plays. He might not be truly free again until his rookie contract expires, sometime in his mid-20s.
In the meantime, while the best young lawyers and doctors go work for the best law firms and hospitals, the reward for the best college players is the chance to work for the worst companies in their chosen field. Unless they get traded – and, of course, they don't get to choose that team either.
NFL Signing Day ends all that. It gives players the leverage they've earned as high-demand employees in a free market.
I think it would make the league more interesting, too. Assembling a team in the NFL has always been a balance between building through the draft and acquiring the right veterans. Now teams could REALLY build with young players, and teams that prefer older players could bypass signing day. It would force teams to be smarter and bolder. It would require coaches to get out of their cinder-block offices and recruit, which would get them a little fresh air.
I see some of you are raising your hands.
This kills off parity and turns the Cowboys and Steelers into the Yankees and Red Sox. Nope. The key to baseball's class divide is local TV money -- the Dodgers and Yankees get billions, the Marlins and Astros get chicken scratch. Every NFL team starts on more equal footing. It's unlikely, under the salary cap, that any team would go out and sign the top 10 prospects. But what if a bad team pulled an Ole Miss? If a limo pulled up to the stadium in Jacksonville and spit out three top guys from Mel Kiper's Big Board, all wearing Jags gear, wouldn't they sell enough tickets and jerseys to cover the cost?
NFL recruiters will swarm college campuses. Well, yeah. When players are basically majoring in football, it's natural for them to talk to potential employers. You could create a couple of basic rules (maybe NFL teams can't meet with a player until his season is over), but if you don't have a draft, players have to be able to evaluate teams as well as the other way around – in exactly the same way other students coming out of college have to evaluate their job offers. Yes, this involves agents and advisers and such. But they're involved now. This pulls them out of the shadows.
But I LIKE the draft. I do, too. But this way is fairer to the players, and in some ways, to the teams. And the drama would be ridiculous. The draft is a classic inverted-pyramid news story -- all the interesting stuff happens at the beginning. NFL Signing Day could delay the gratification like a Hitchcock thriller. Imagine if Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III had waited all day to announce where they're playing. And imagine if every team had a shot to sign them. They'd have to crank up the Red Zone Channel just to cover all the announcements.
Exactly. Did you see how chaotic it was on signing day? ESPNU could barely handle it. I'm not sure Chris Berman can. Some would call that a bug. Others would call it a feature.
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