Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Department of Modest Proposals: How About a GI Bill for Baseball?

Since no one pays nearly as much attention to college baseball as college football, many probably didn't notice last month that the NCAA Board of Directors instituted a boatload of rules changes affecting eligibility and scholarship rules for college baseball players.

Designed to boost academic performance, the changes impose new standards for handing out scholarships, cuts roster sizes, changes the dates by which players must be academically eligible, and imposes a football-style rule pursuant to which players who transfer to another Division I school must sit out a year.

While the rules regarding academic performance and transferring will probably affect the college game the most, I don't care all that much about on-the-field college baseball, mostly because their bats ping instead of crack. I'm way more interested in college baseball's role in coughing up players for major league teams, and one of these rules -- the new limits on how scholarships can be divided up -- seems like it will impact that role negatively.

Currently, baseball teams are limited to 11.7 full scholarships, which they are allowed to divide up among their 30-40 players (some teams have more) however they see fit. Starting in 2008, teams will be obligated to give any player who receives some scholarship aid at least one-third of a full ride. The net result of this will be that fewer total college baseball players will receive scholarship help, though some may see a larger proportion of their tuition paid.

While there are several other causes of the phenomenon of Blacks shunning baseball in favor of other sports, these rules would seem to exacerbate the problem given that Blacks are, on average, poorer than Whites and in therefore in greater need of scholarship dollars. Lowering the number of players receiving some portion of help is likely to cause poorer athletes who want to go to college to look to football and basketball -- sports in which there are significantly more scholarships, and certainly more full-rides -- instead of baseball.

I am concerned with the incentives currently in place that (a) steer Blacks away from Major League Baseball; and (b) steer those Blacks that are interested in Major League Baseball away from college. Because the production of future major leaguers isn't at the top of their agenda, however, this isn't college baseball's problem, nor do I think it should be.

It is MLB's problem, though. Potential solutions? How about MLB providing college assistance or, at the very least, college incentives, for players it drafts out of high school, which are designed to be used at a later date a la the GI Bill? If it did, athletes who may be inclined to take a crack at baseball but who worry about the long odds of success may be inclined to take a chance knowing that they won't be foregoing an education by doing so.

I can't help but think that even a pilot program along these lines would snag for baseball a couple of multi-sport athletes who would have chosen football or basketball due to the softer post-sports landing the richer scholarship opportunities they provide.
If that were to happen, maybe the next Lou Brock would be an outfielder instead of a cornerback.