Fran Tarkenton: Treat teachers like quarterbacks

Fran Tarkenton made his name as a scrambler and a gambler in a Vikings jersey. The quarterback winged risky passes into traffic and ran like his life was in danger -- which, at only 6 foot, 190 pounds, it probably was.

But because Tarkenton's risk-taking paid off, he got paid, to the tune of something like $300,000 when he played for the Vikings in the mid-1970s.

Now, Tarkenton's arguing that American schoolteachers deserve that same risk-reward system, writing in a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed that everyone would benefit if teachers were treated like football players.

"Teachers' salaries," Tarkenton writes, "have no relation to whether teachers are actually good at their job -- excellence isn't rewarded, and neither is extra effort."

It's worth pointing out that Tarkenton hasn't been sitting around chatting about football in the 30 years since he retired from the game. The Hall of Famer has serious experience in the private sector, having started nearly 20 successful businesses in the last three decades, and once sitting on the board of directors at Coca Cola.

But, never shy to use his better-known career to his advantage, Tarkenton instead leans on his football experience in arguing for merit pay at public schools. Tarkenton begins with a clever conceit in his Wall Street Journal Op-Ed, which is titled, "What if the NFL played by Teachers' Rules?"

Imagine, Tarkenton writes, that NFL players were paid based not on success but on tenure, with each year adding a bit more salary, and, perhaps most pointedly, a lot more job security.

"[I]f a player makes it through his third season," Tarkenton writes, "he can never be cut from the roster until he chooses to retire, except in the most extreme cases of misconduct.

Under these conditions, he argues, the league product would suffer from bloat and stagnation, but the players' league would refuse to give an inch on its terms. The metaphor, of course, is that this is how America's public schools are currently run, and that they're suffering because of it.

Beyond compensation issues, the muscle of teachers' unions is often employed to keep failing teachers on staff, Tarkenton writes:

After a teacher earns tenure, which is often essentially automatic, firing him or her becomes almost impossible, no matter how bad the performance might be. And if you criticize the system, you're demonized for hating teachers and not believing in our nation's children.

Tarkenton also takes a pretty hearty swing at Barack Obama, whose education plan includes billions of dollars for "public school modernization," which to Tarkenton sounds like throwing more money at a deeply flawed system.

In his piece, Tarkenton conveniently leaves out the existence of the NFL Players Association, the players union, which has gotten progressively stronger since the late 60's. The NFLPA is the organ that allowed Tarkenton to switch teams on a whim -- as when he left the Vikings for the New York Giants, only to return to the Vikings -- and negotiate his salary and benefits.

Before players' unions flexed their muscles in the major sports, players were grossly underpaid and thrown out like old shoes. That same NFLPA now guaranteess a minimum salary, which these days is about as much as Tarkenton was paid at the height of his career. The players union is also arguing with the owners for increased health benefits and pensions for retired players, like Tarkenton.

As any old-timer Vikings fan remembers, Fran threw lots of touchdowns in his day -- but he also threw lots of interceptions. He clearly did lots of legwork and a bit of improvisation on this Op-Ed piece, and the ball is now in the air. It's unclear if this one's a score, or if he's given the ball away -- but, like the old days, it's always interesting to watch him try.

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