For the NFLPA, its All-Star game is about more than just football

LOS ANGELES -- For the second straight year, the NFL Players Association will hold its Collegiate Bowl at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif. The game will take place on Saturday, Jan. 19. at 6:00 p.m. ET.

Several interesting names will take the field, including a couple of prospects whose last names have already made inroads into the NFL -- Vanderbilt quarterback Jordan Rodgers, younger brother of Aaron, and Wisconsin cornerback Marcus Cromartie, cousin of Dominque Rodgers-Cromartie and brother to Antonio Cromartie. Texas receiver Marquise Goodwin and Virginia Tech linebacker Bruce Taylor are worth keeping an eye on, as well.

Last year, the two coaches were Tom Flores and Dick Vermeil, who had last faced off in Super Bowl XV, when Flores' Oakland Raiders beat Vermeil's Philadelphia Eagles, 27-10 on Jan. 25, 1981. This year, Vermeil will go up against Herman Edwards, who he coached in that game, and who later coached the New York Jets and Kansas City Chiefs for a total of eight seasons.

“The NFL Players Association wants this to be more than just a game, they want it to be a NFL educational experience,” Vermeil said before the inaugural contest. “This will be these players’ first introduction to the National Football League without the pressure of making a team in training camp. By the time they are drafted and go to training camp they will have an understanding of what’s expected of them, having worked with NFL coaches and players for a week. There won’t be anything like this.”

The East-West Shrine Game, Senior Bowl, and Texas vs. the Nation game are all set up to similarly help draft prospects to get a feel for what the next level looks like, but as NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith told Y! Sports this week, the focus is on more than getting in front of NFL coaches in practice situations on a field. Educational reinforcement is Smith's primary goal.

"The game came out of the idea that the earlier we're able to talk to a young man in the context of transitioning into the National Football League, the better the player is able to make a successful transition," Smith said. "So, if you had to pick an event that started us thinking about it, it was when the league cancelled the Rookie Symposium during the year when we were in a lockout [2011]. We put on something called 'The Business of Football' and came out of that not only believing that it was a good program, but the feedback we got from the players after doing our own program started us thinking about how we could replicate this -- and give an opportunity for some of the best athletes in the world to showcase their talents. That was the germination of the idea of an All-Star game.

"So, while the game on Saturday is a big event, and I'm looking forward to seeing these guys play, it's the week where we have the ability to introduce these guys to great coaches like Darrell Green, Art Monk, Dick Vermeil, and Herman Edwards, and the week that we spend in the classroom off the field is the part I really care about."

Edwards, currently an ESPN analyst, is excited about the opportunity to coach again, which shouldn't be surprising -- Herm tends to be pretty excitable about everything.

"Some of these guys obviously are not first-round picks," Edwards said about the players he'll be coaching. "They are going to be guys who are maybe middle-round picks, and some of them will be free agents. I tell players all the time, don’t get caught up if you get drafted or you are a free agent. You guys will get an opportunity, but will you be prepared when the opportunity arrives? You don’t know when opportunity will knock. It doesn’t give you a warning."

For Smith, that tenuous NFL future makes the off-field mentoring all the more important. It's the NFLPA's renewed mission to give players entering the league by any means necessary a real understanding of that happens after the NFL eventually passes them by.

"Each player who comes in this week will get a packet that outlines a program which we intend to use to help players get their degrees in the first three years, if they don't already have them. That's something I Know that the other bowls aren't doing, and while you always have people on the league side talking about education, we have a combine that takes place during the second semester of more of our senior players' years.  We want to figure out a way to effectively make them better-prepared for the life we know they're going to have in the National Football League.

Moreover, Smith said, it's about eliminating the hyphen in that most nefarious of athletic terms: "Student-athlete." It's a combined word the NCAA uses with more weight on one side or the other to suit its own needs, but the NFLPA is trying to sort through that and focus on the "student" part.

"I'm sure you had a chance to read Taylor Branch's piece ['The Shame of College Sports' in Atlantic Monthly] about college athletics -- that was one of those pieces of journalism that just made you say, 'Wow,'" Smith said. "I was reminded of that when you talked about the hyphen in 'student-athlete', and how it's what we as attorneys call legal fictions -- simply created to further someone's agenda. To me, if we care about the young men who come into this sport, we want them to be students without hyphens, and get the educations they're entitled to. When it comes time for them to have a job using their athletic skills, we want them to be an athlete-employee. It seems to me that our real mission here at the union is not so much to buy into legal fictions, but to recognize people for who they are.

"We don't look at them as hyphenated entities. These are young men who either have their degrees or do not have their degrees, who are trying to move into the business of football, And it's our job to prepare them the best we can. You can become successful if you play this game, which is to take advantage of the opportunity you have, and to earn a significant salary. But more than that, per the current collective bargaining agreement, you can pretty much finish your degree for free in your first three years -- and you can certainly finish your degree for free if you vest after three years."

On the football side, players are scouted by several different people and entities -- former NFL general manager Bill Polian has agreed to oversee the process, and people from IMG and the NFLPA round out the evaluation roster.

What to Read Next