NORTHWESTERN COMMAND – Our own Gene Sapakoff wrote about the Clowney dilemma today: should the uber-talented South Carolina defensive end stay in college and enjoy terrorizing college QBs on Saturdays? Or should he simply sit out the season and guarantee that he’s the No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft. After all, he saw what happened to teammate Marcus Lattimore.
Now Clowney says he intends to play, and he never hinted at the notion of sitting out. So this is really a non-story that began with a column in the Charlotte Observer, one suggesting Clowney had nothing to gain by playing this season so he should sit. (You could argue NFL scouts would question his drive and interest in football by sitting, but he’d still be the No. 1 pick even with that red flag).
But the Clowney question is much bigger than one person’s choice – even if it’s a choice created by the media. That we’re even asking whether there’s enough incentive for a college star to play is further evidence of fault lines developing in the amateur system.
Players simply aren’t compensated at their true values. We know this.
But as television contracts and ticket prices continue to balloon, players’ relative compensation (scholarships) continues to decline. Incentive decreases while incentive to stay healthy for the NFL increases.
As I wrote about in 2009, if college football used an NFL-style revenue sharing system C.J. Spiller was really worth $4.2 million to Clemson in 2009.
Clowney is college football’s biggest game-changer on the field and he could, if he wanted to, become its biggest game-changer off of the field.
Ask Sapakoff writes: “If Clowney skips his junior year to protect his body and financial interests going into the 2014 NFL draft, college football — led by the Southeastern Conference — will have some kind of stipend system in place quicker than a Tuscaloosa to Baton Rouge charter flight in nice weather.”
By not playing college football in 2013 he – or any elite prospect – could perhaps change the way student-athletes are compensated. Maybe there’s a stipend, maybe the Olympic model is adopted where student-athletes can earn income off of their likeness (jersey sales, endorsements).
Any projected first-round college star has three options:
Option 1: play and enjoy your junior season. The college experience is special and so is being the big man on campus. By cementing legendary status this could result in future income in the form of local endorsements: your name here (attached to car dealership).
Option 2: sit out, watch the season on TV, and guarantee your health.
See the Sapakoff thought experiment: “Imagine Clowney meeting with a career counselor at South Carolina. Once the ambitious young man explains that a $25 million job offer is guaranteed as long as he makes it 14 more months without getting hurt, it’s hard to see Mrs. Counselor saying, “You know, Jadeveon, what you’ll probably want to do in the meantime is engage in a series of extremely violent collisions with some really big and fast guys from Tennessee and Florida while avoiding those nasty double-team blocks that almost cut short your season last year.’”
Or there Option 3: play in Canada.
NBA guard Brandon Jennings is the only prominent athlete who chose an approach like this. The NBA also has an age minimum and rather than play for a scholarship he played one year professionally in Europe, then became a lottery pick.
Football players could play in Canada for cash while they wait to become eligible for the NFL Draft. Bryce Brown’s camp suggest this as an option back in 2009.
Of course there’s one major problem with this option: the 2012 salary caps for teams in the CFL was $4.3 million … total. Top players earn $120,000-$100,000 pear season. The minimum salary a player can earn was $44,000. For that relatively little amount, players are probably better served playing for a scholarship or becoming a journalist or school teacher.
I’m surprised there isn’t a more relevant football minor league that has been developed to take advantage of the NFL’s age minimum. Perhaps the top 100 prospects playing in an arena league or in Canada would drive up TV ratings and contracts. After all we put the US Army All-American can on national television and people watch. There’s an entire market of undervalued assets here.
To fundamentally alter the college system it would take a Clowney, or an Andrew Luck, or a Sammy Watkins (if he had a better 2012), sitting out a season or banding together and playing in a minor league. That would indeed be a shot across the bow and could force reform.
But until that day happens college football is still waiting for its Curt Flood.