It’s a ritual now for football fans: Gravely watching one of their former heroes talk about how broken his life has become after years of head trauma. In a story that ran on Tuesday, former Steelers receiver and Super Bowl XL hero Antwaan Randle El told J. Brady McCollough of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he has memory losses and sometimes has trouble going down stairs because of brain injuries he suffered playing football. Randle-El is 36 years old.
Randle El’s is a sad story on its own, and a common one, and sad because it’s so common. But it got interesting for baseball fans when McCollough asked him if he regretted playing football.
“If I could go back, I wouldn’t,” Randle El said. “I would play baseball. I got drafted by the Cubs in the 14th round, but I didn’t play baseball because of my parents. They made me go to school. Don’t get me wrong, I love the game of football. But, right now, I could still be playing baseball.”
That’s an easy sentiment to latch on to for baseball fans—baseball isn’t without risk, but the degree and nature of that risk are trivial compared to the suffering Randle El and others have described after a career in football. Major-league ballplayers also tend to make more money and play longer than their NFL counterparts do, which all makes it easy to shroud “please like my sport”-level smugness in the clothing of altruism.
Because telling young football players to just play baseball isn’t that simple.
First of all, most young athletes don’t have the choice. Not every two-sport high schooler is Deion Sanders, or even Jeff Samardzija. Consider how small a segment of the population can play high-level college or pro baseball or football, and consider how much smaller a segment of the population is capable of doing both. Alabama defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson, a 20-yeear-old listed at 6-foot-4, 312 pounds, is ideally suited for pushing large men and tackling small ones, which are skills as useless to baseball as Joey Votto’s ability to hit a small ball with a round bat is to football.
But that’s obvious. Let’s address the case of the day, players like Antwaan Randle El, who actually had the choice between football and baseball and chose the former. Saying “just choose baseball” ignores the profound economic disparities between amateur baseball and football.
For all its other faults, the route to fame and fortune in football is one of the most meritocratic in sports. There are elite private clinics for kids, particularly quarterbacks, but—ironically, perhaps because of the brutality of the sport—football players, most of the time, play for their high schools and nowhere else. Colleges scout and recruit high schoolers at their schools, and pro teams scout colleges. Acknowledging that rich parents can hire personal trainers, or send their kids to private schools, or pay for sessions with George Whitfield, you can get noticed by Alabama or Florida State, and in turn by the NFL, if you just show up for your high school football team.
That’s much less true in baseball, and it’s one of the sport’s most severe and least-discussed problems when it comes to spreading the game at the grassroots level. Once the amateur game becomes essentially privatized—a year-round phenomenon where travel teams and private showcases supplement and supplant school teams—it gets expensive, quickly.
The problem with scouting amateur baseball teams is that you can’t see everyone because there’s just too much ground to cover. The NFL draws the majority of its talent from the 128 Division I FBS programs, with the rest coming from the 125 Division I FCS teams. Each of those 253 schools has a staff of nine full-time coaches and two graduate assistants, and covers the local high schools thoroughly for talent.
MLB scouts, however, have to keep up with about 300 Division I baseball teams, plus junior colleges and some 15,000 high school teams across the United States, plus amateur players in Latin America, Asia and Europe. College baseball teams have only three full-time coaches—there are more teams to keep track of and fewer eyes to keep track of them with.
Getting noticed is expensive. Travel teams—the same ones that Dr. James Andrews cites as the No. 1 reason for the rise in Tommy John surgery—can cost up to thousands of dollars per season in fees and travel costs and start when players aren’t even in middle school.
And then there’s the showcase circuit, which collects top high school talent and dumps elite players from one region, or across the country, onto one field so scouts and college coaches can take a good look at them without combing the countryside. Some top-level showcases, such as the Area Code Games and East Coast Pro, are free for invited players to attend, but even then they still have to make their way to the event, which comes with its own cost in time and money.
Those expenses—$800 for a showcase here, $250 for a bat there—add up. Hockey’s been going through a similar crisis in recent years after the 2013 publication of Selling the Dream, a book by Ken Campbell and Jim Parcels about the cost of youth hockey, wherein it’s estimated that getting Colorado Avalanche forward Matt Duchene to the NHL cost Duchene’s parents about $300,000 in equipment, fees and lost income.
Baseball doesn’t cost quite that much, but neither is it cheap. Not only is financing a year-round youth baseball career a huge imposition on upper-middle-class parents, it’s almost impossible for families who don’t have huge piles of cash to burn. Without some sort of outside financial support high-level youth baseball isn’t an option for less privileged kids. And “less privileged” doesn’t mean orphans and the destitute, it means kids from families where both parents work full-time jobs, as you can see in this 2013 Baseball America article or in Andrew McCutchen’s 2015 essay in The Players’ Tribune about his own experiences trying to get from Little League to the pros.
And while baseball’s not as bad for your brain, and while star baseball players make more money than star football players, it’s worth talking about what high school football players are competing for when they’re trying to get onto that ladder’s bottom rung.
In football, FBS teams are allowed to distribute 85 full scholarships, while FCS teams are allowed 63. Division I baseball teams are allowed to give out the equivalent of 11.7 full scholarships, split as many as 27 ways. Let’s set aside that even a full college scholarship is a pittance compared to the value a football player generates for his school. Let’s also set aside that given the time pressure on college athletes, the quality of public education (particularly in the Southern states that produce most of our great athletes) and the pressure on universities to keep top athletes eligible to play, it’s worth asking how much actual education student-athletes actually get.
Even setting aside those things, the disparity of resources is jarring. It’s rare to find a college football player who isn’t on a full-ride scholarship. It’s also rare to find a college baseball player who is. McCutchen said in his essay that he turned down a 70 percent scholarship to the University of Florida to go pro because he couldn’t afford the other 30 percent. The University of Florida, one of the top programs in the country, couldn’t even pay for a full scholarship for the No. 11 pick in the draft.
Finally, the economic argument for baseball over football doesn’t really hold water unless the player reaches free agency.
The No. 1 pick in the 2015 NFL draft, Jameis Winston, got a signing bonus of about $16.7 million, plus a four-year contract that raised his overall guaranteed compensation to about $23.5 million. The No. 1 pick in the MLB draft, Dansby Swanson, received a $6.5 million signing bonus and will draw a minor-league salary. It’s not until pick 61 that the NFL draftee made less than the MLB signing bonus for the same draft slot, and not until pick 65 that the overall guaranteed money evened out. After being drafted, NFL players go straight to the majors, as it were, while minor-league baseball players live below the poverty line. Even a practice squad NFLer makes more in two weeks than most minor leaguers do in a season.
Pre-arbitration baseball players make about the same as pre-restricted free agency NFL players (the NFL’s minimum salary starts out less than MLB’s for rookies, but goes up with service time), so baseball players really only start to make bank—compared to football players—when they reach free agency, which most never do. But it’s okay—most NFL players don’t stay in the league long enough to become unrestricted free agents either.
Choosing baseball over football is better for your health. This is without dispute, and for many people, that factor outweighs all others. But for a serious athlete—someone like Antwaan Randle El or Kyler Murray who might play one sport or the other for his career—it’s also an economic decision that’s impossibly complicated for some, and simply not an option for many others.
Absent that context, “just play baseball” isn’t good enough, without calling for more college scholarships and paid coaching positions, higher minor-league salaries, the abolition of the travel ball and showcase circuits and reforms to amateur spending pools. It passes judgment on parents and teenagers for making irresponsible decisions, when maybe playing baseball at a high level is just too expensive.
It’s a great irony that while Randle El says he wishes he’d chosen baseball, his fellow Pittsburgh sports hero McCutchen says the opposite.
“Even despite all the breaks I got with baseball, I probably wouldn’t be a Major League player right now if I didn’t tear my ACL when I was 15,” he wrote. “I thought I was going to play college football. Why? Economics … Many low-income kids don’t have the option of going to college to develop their game and get an education.”
It’s not a fair comparison. The way the system is set up now, telling kids to “just play baseball” is like saying, “Your brain is worth protecting, but only if your parents are rich.”
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