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What the NFL and NBA could learn from the MLS

If Cam Newton played soccer, there would be no scandal Add to ...

There is no doubt Major League Soccer trails way behind the NFL and the NBA in popularity among North American sports but they are miles ahead in one area:

How to treat young athletes.

One of the biggest stories in US college football this year was the alleged recruiting scandal surrounding Cam Newton; the massive Auburn University quarterback whose father tried to solicit $180,000 to have his son play at Mississippi State.

The obvious joke - now that Newton has declared for the NFL draft - is how he can possibly afford the pay cut.

You could have made it with regard to any number of basketball players, from O.J.Mayo (joke during Mayo's rookie year among NBA types: no wonder he's playing like a veteran pro -- he is one!) at USC to Chris Webber at Michigan.

It's not clear that anyone should actually be upset by this - I mean, maybe Newton should have held out for more money for putting his health at risk for the price of a scholarship he may or may not actually want while his university and the NCAA and television networks profit -- but it's against the rules, so it was big news.

Meanwhile one of the must-read books out these days is Play Their Hearts Out, by George Dohrmann; which puts a young man's face on the pervasive underground economy in youth basketball long been present in the United States and some fear, is becoming a factor in Canadian basketball as more elite talent is being swept up in a world permeated by back-channel payments to and from agents, shoe company interests and major D1 basketball powers.

These kind of stories will never go away as long as the NCAA is committed to its athletes as amateurs and the NBA and the NFL refuse to admit players to their league straight from high school.

There are huge sums of money to be gained by having certain athletes attend certain schools and align themselves with Nike or Adidas or what have you; let alone the interests of various agents falling over themselves to represent players when they do turn professional and earn the commissions accordingly.

But because the athletes are supposed to be amateurs, all that money has to stay underground, and it's those dark places that the trouble brews.

And then you have MLS.

Yesterday the Vancouver Whitecaps, partly owned by NBA star Steve Nash, used the first overall draft pick in the 2011 Super Draft was a 17-year-old, Omar Salgado, who has been playing professionally since he was 15.

Scandal? No scandal. As a matter of fact, Salgado is one the members of Generation Adidas, a joint venture between the sports apparel giant the MLS where the very best college underclassman and high school age-prospects are paid six-figure contracts to join the MLS where member clubs draft them with the benefit that the salaries aren't paid by them, but by Adidas.

This just kills me, in the sense that a story about a shoe company launching a multi-million marketing campaign to keep talented athletes out of school - were they basketball or football players --- would get treated like a massive scandal.

In soccer, everyone thinks this is the greatest thing, and will be a big factor in the growth of the MLS and overall development of US soccer in general.

The Akron Zips won the NCAA title this year and no less than five of its players were taken in the first round of the draft and signed to Generation Adidas contracts.

Their coach is thrilled: "This is an exciting day for the entire Akron soccer program and certainly a dream come true for this special group of Zips players," said UA head coach Caleb Porter, who recently signed a 10-year contract extension. "It wasn't surprising after winning the national championship that MLS identified several players as being ready for the next level. Certainly, this could be perceived as bittersweet losing so many quality underclassmen at one time but when a player is offered the coveted Generation adidas contract it gives them the best platform to enter professional soccer and I am nothing but happy for them."

Generation Adidas is a joint venture between Major League Soccer and U.S. Soccer aimed at raising the level of young soccer talent in the United States. The program, sponsored by adidas, encourages early entry (without college graduation) of American players into MLS. Entering into the program automatically classifies a player as professional and thus, disqualifies them from playing college soccer. As a result, Generation adidas players are also guaranteed scholarships to continue their college education should their professional career not pan out.

"I think its important for people to understand its not so much that these young men were looking to leave Akron or that they are prioritizing a soccer career over school," Porter said. "It's more of a case that the Generation adidas program gives them the incredible opportunity to have the best of both worlds with the way these contracts are structured. They will receive a guaranteed multi-year contract and as a part of the program each player is provided an educational grant to finish out their degrees when the time is right."

And who can argue?

The players earn a good wage and are given grants toward their college education should they so choose to use them; the MLS can pay for the talent they want in their league and the NCAA can go about the business of amateur sports without the business side running them ragged.

What is so hard about this?





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