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Top-level college athletes need to be schooled on going pro

“Let me tell you about the very rich.” That’s how F. Scott Fitzgerald opened his 1926 short story, “The Rich Boy.” Fitzgerald explained, “They are different from you and me.”

The same is true in college sports, and it is time for the NCAA and universities to better recognize that fact.

Anyone who has watched college sports on TV has likely seen the commercial from the NCAA explaining that there are almost 400,000 “student-athletes” and “almost all of them go pro in something other than sports.” While this is true, it obscures the fact that at the top level of college sports a significant number of athletes do in fact go pro in sports, becoming multi-millionaires upon leaving college. Let’s take a look at some numbers.

In 2015, Sporting Intelligence compiled the salaries of all NFL teams, as part of its annual professional sport salary survey, and then sorted them by the top 35 universities represented in the NFL. With the most players in the NFL was — surprise surprise — Alabama with 36 players. However, Ole Miss topped the salary list, with 18 players earning almost $73 million that year.

These data allow us to calculate the odds of playing in the NFL for a player in the top football programs, and how much they might expect to make.

There are 65 teams in the top five college football conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC), and combined each year, they produce about 1,000 players eligible for the annual NFL draft, which selects 256 players. Depending on assumptions about things like career length in the NFL, it turns out that a football player from one of the top 35 universities on the Sporting Intelligence list has about a 20 percent chance of going pro in the NFL, and earning an average salary of about $2 million. Of course, some make a lot less, and others a lot more.

The NCAA tells us that more than 70,000 athletes play football in college, of which only 1.6 percent ever get drafted by a NFL team. But the data tell us that the rich are different.

Basketball is similar. Using similar data from Sporting Intelligence, we find that Kentucky and Duke were tied in 2015, each with 18 former players in the NBA. No surprise there either. Looking at the top 16 schools, we find 171 players in the NBA (which only has 450 players) who collectively made more than $800 million in 2015, or about $5 million per player.

We can do some similar math to that above related to the NFL, using assumptions about things like player tenure in the NBA and how many college athletes are drafted versus overseas players. It turns out that if you play for one of the top 16 college basketball schools in terms of players moving on to the NBA, then you have about a 12 percent chance of being drafted by a NBA team. Because some players make their way to the NBA from outside the draft, it turns out that each of these players actually has about a 20 percent chance of making it to an NBA roster.

Even within these numbers there are big differences, as you are three times as likely to make the NBA from Kentucky (No. 1) as from Memphis (No. 16). The NCAA tells us that across Division I programs in 2015 there was a 3.8 percent chance (in 2015) of being drafted by the NBA, and that 32 percent of DI players played professionally in some capacity (including D-League and overseas) in the year after they left school. For the top five NCAA conferences, these numbers jump to 16 percent (drafted by NBA) and 57 percent (playing professionally somewhere).

Think of it this way the next time that you are watching the Buffs playing this season at the Coors Events Center: On average, six of the players you see on the court at any given time will ultimately get paid to play professional basketball.

These numbers are far from the NCAA’s claim that most of its athletes will go pro in something other than sports. The reality is that the top levels of college football and basketball are indeed preparing athletes for professional careers.

Of course, a sizable number won’t make a professional roster and most professional careers, even if lucrative, will be short. Thus, it is important for athletes to have skills and knowledge to rely on when sporting excellence ultimately fades or disappears in an instant via injury.

We can compare the odds of going pro in football and basketball to an academic example. In the U.S., according to data published in 2013 in Nature Biotechnology, there are about 3,000 tenure-track faculty positions that open up. Yet, U.S. universities produce about 36,000 PhDs each year. That means that for the new PhD, the odds of landing a job as a professor, assuming all these positions are filled with new graduates, is only about 8 percent.

The NCAA Division I basketball player has about a four-times greater chance of playing professionally than the PhD graduate does in landing a tenure-track job as a professor. Maybe we academics should run commercials advertising the fact that we produce 36,000 PhDs per year and most “go pro” in something other than being a professor.

There are several important implications of these numbers for thinking about college football and men’s basketball in the top conferences, including right here at the University of Colorado.

First, top level football and men’s basketball programs are different than other sports, or even these same sports at lower level. Universities are preparing elite athletes for entry into a profession. Jobs are limited in this profession and not everyone, even at the highest levels, will gain entry. But we can say the exact same thing about earning a PhD in hopes of becoming a professor.

Second, the NCAA and most universities tend to treat top college athletes as if they are regular students who happen to play sport. There are very few, if any, undergraduate programs anywhere that consistently produce students who will become instant millionaires. Athletics do. That suggests a need for formal education for college athletes on how to handle the profession of professional athletics, which involves much more than what happens on the field or court.

Finally, even for athletes who do go pro, careers will in most cases be short and the former athlete will have most of his life ahead of him. The NCAA might consider awarding scholarships that can be used after an athlete runs the course of a professional career. Some former athletes will be in a fortunate position where money won’t matter, but for others, a lifetime scholarship might make a big difference to getting the education needed to begin a new career, whether that is completing an undergraduate degree or getting an advanced degree.

In elite college sports, the rich really are different. The NCAA and universities should acknowledge this reality and design athletic programs to recognize these differences.

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