Are there really any winners here?

Updated: February 12, 2004, 3:02 PM ET
By Myles Brand | Special to ESPN.com

A recent highly publicized "victory" in court is a loss for higher education.

Yes, a handful of young men may financially benefit from a federal judge's decision to overturn the National Football League's rule that players must be three years removed from high school before they can enter the league's draft.

Many more, however, will end up with the worst of both worlds: neither a professional career nor the benefits of college education.

This is much more than a question of whether young athletes are physically prepared for the rigors of the NFL. I suspect that the unfortunate and often unreported instances of young men who leave college early or spurn it altogether in a futile and misguided attempt to reach the NBA may soon be the case in football as well.

The court's ruling will entice these young men to sacrifice academic pursuits at the altar of get-rich-quick improbability. I think most would agree a college degree is a good thing to have, yet this decision reinforces the mindset among athletes to get out of college as quickly as possible, or to skip it altogether.

Rest assured, those of us in intercollegiate athletics do not consider our enterprise as a steppingstone to the pros, or as a temporary way station in which gaining physical maturity and enhancing sport skills are the only goals. Indeed, we are taking steps to ensure that NCAA student-athletes are foremost students fully engaged in academics and on track toward earning degrees.

Furthermore, I fear, the exploitative culture that has long existed in basketball also will soon envelop football.

"Street agents" eager to take advantage of the naiveté of young football players will oversell them on their skills and falsely raise their expectations. They will use these youngsters for their own short-term gain, unconcerned with any long-term outcome. This decision also reinforces and makes more urgent the notion that developmental leagues should be established that provide an option for young athletes whose primary -- and perhaps only -- interest is becoming a professional.

College sports will continue to feed its graduating athletes to professional sports. It always has and always will. But there should be alternatives to athletes who have little or no interest in a college education to develop themselves as professional prospects.

There is no better way to do this than through minor or developmental leagues. In basketball in particular, the integrity of the student-athlete mission has been compromised by the proverbial pounding of the square peg into the round hole. Athletes who are unprepared and/or uncommitted to the academic part of the equation have nonetheless come to college because it is viewed as their only route to professional stardom.

(Editor's note: The NBA does have the NBDL, although it does not produce nearly the number of high-quality players nor provide the level of exposure college basketball does.)

If the court's ruling is not overturned, it only stands to reason that football will be similarly impacted.

Rest assured, those of us in intercollegiate athletics do not consider our enterprise as a steppingstone to the pros, or as a temporary way station in which gaining physical maturity and enhancing sport skills are the only goals. Indeed, we are taking steps to ensure that NCAA student-athletes are foremost students fully engaged in academics and on track toward earning degrees.

Another possible consequence of this ruling is that, without developmental minor leagues in basketball and football, the membership of the NCAA may find additional support for freshman ineligibility as a means of insuring that recruited student-athletes aren't using college participation as a means to move quickly to the pros.

Of course, those concerned about cost containment or are challenged by scholarship limitations aren't enthusiastic about the idea of freshman ineligibility -- and in fact there is no formal proposal for this, nor is our association currently working on similar issues. But it may come to pass that is preferable to the alternative of the student-athlete who is interested in playing in college only a year or two in order to enhance his professional opportunities.

Finally, I want to emphasize that my objections are not based on denying opportunity of a professional career to the small number of individuals who might be able to take advantage of it. Nor is my concern, as skeptics might suggest, rooted in how this might affect the quality of play at the intercollegiate level.

As we have seen in basketball, the support for intercollegiate athletics is for the name on the front of the jersey, not the name on the back.

Instead, my heartfelt concern about this ruling is how it will work to redirect the thinking of the next generation of young athletes. Despite our continuing efforts to help football student-athletes understand the value of staying in college and getting an education, I fear the blinding light of unlikely prosperity in the NFL will mislead far too many of them. And that will be, indeed, a loss for us all.

Dr. Myles Brand assumed his duties as president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association on January 1, 2003, becoming just the fourth chief executive officer, and first college president to lead the NCAA. Prior to that, Brand was president of Indiana University, and before that, the University of Oregon.

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