One of the knocks on a system that has college football players providing their services to their colleges without financial compensation is that there isn’t really an alternative for them. If they don’t want to play for free in college, they could theoretically join one of the semi-pro indoor leagues that dot the country, but they aren’t able to pursue a deal on the open marketplace: The NFL and the NCAA have long agreed on a three-year-rule that requires potential draft picks to be at least three years out of high school before they’re eligible to enter the league. 

This is why South Carolina pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney—who it’s widely accepted would have been the top overall pick in the 2013 draft, had he been eligible to enter the NFL after his sophomore year—found himself waiting around for an extra year of college, trying to avoid injury, instead of going pro. It’s a rule that Patterson, in an interview with the Associated Press, says the NFL might want to consider doing away with.

The leader of the nation’s wealthiest athletic program also insisted Tuesday that university athletes are students, not employees. If they want to be treated as workers, they should turn pro, Patterson said.

“Professional athletics is something completely different,” Patterson said, addressing last week’s ruling by a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board that Northwestern’s football team can be considered employees and have the right to form what would be the nation’s first union for college athletes.

“If you’re a football player coming out of high school that decides you want to go to the pros, go take up your issue with (NFL Commissioner) Roger Goodell, the owners and the union,” Patterson said. “That’s your place to go, if you want to go play professional football, if you want to go be an employee.

“If you want to go play professional basketball, go the D-league, knock yourself out, then in the draft to the NBA,” Patterson said. “That’s your place if you want to be an employee, if you want to be a professional. This is not your place,” Patterson said, tapping his finger on his desk.

“This is a free country. You can make that choice all day long. Knock yourself out,” he said. “This is student athletics.”

 Patterson’s claim that this is all a matter for Roger Goodell and the NFLPA to decide is technically true—it’s an NFL rule, not an NCAA rule, that forbids players who are fewer than three years out of high school from going pro—it’s also a bit disingenuous. The NCAA functions as a free farm-system for the NFL, and collusion between the two leagues led to the development of the rule, which keeps star players in college ball a bit longer. As ESPN’s Tim Keown wrote in a fire-breathing column last year: 

The NFL gets to collude with the NCAA on player eligibility, which means the two entities can force players to spend three years in college no matter how detrimental it might be to the professional and personal well-being of those players.

The system is self-serving, hypocritical and borderline socialistic. College programs use it to create continuity and remain relevant. The NFL uses it to ensure the prepackaging of stars at the amateur level and provide a steady flow of recognizable talent to a sport with an attrition rate that’s just slightly better than what you’d find at your local drive-thru window. In other words, it’s backslaps all around for everyone but the guys doing the labor.

The fact that Patterson went on the record to suggest that the NFL should consider doing away with a rule that exists more or less exclusively to benefit the NCAA is surprising—probably even more surprising than the headline-grabbing statements that Patterson made about how he’d like to see UT basketball games played in China and Dubai. 

Of course, Patterson—like everyone involved in college sports—is in a precarious position, as unionizing players at Northwestern threaten to reshape the dynamics of the NCAA in ways that could have major repercussions in the way the organization is structured. Paying lip service to changing a rule that he ultimately has no authority over might be the best defensive strategy that he has. 

Ultimately, that rule might change without the consent of the NCAA—or even the NFL. While it didn’t bear out, an attorney observing the case of Johnny Manziel had suggested that changing the three-year-rule could be achieved through a lawsuit last year. In Johnny Football’s case, he opted to play his final year at A&M rather than go to court (he’d have been draft-eligible before the case resolved anyway), but the next time there’s a player in his position—especially if he’s a year or two younger than Manziel was this time last year—the rule that Patterson says needs to be taken up by Roger Goodell and the NFLPA could be taken up by the courts, instead. At that point, an entity without a vested interest in preserving the NCAA as a free farm system for the NFL could hear Patterson’s argument that players who want to get paid should just go pro and say, “Yeah, that sounds about right.” 

(AP Photo/Patric Schneider)