One of the most debated topics in college sports this year has been the saga of South Carolina junior defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. The 2012 SEC Defensive Player of the Year has the stats, athletic measurements and all-around beastliness made him almost a unanimous consideration for the Heisman Trophy, and a sure top 3 pick in the 2014 NFL Draft.
The only problem is, Clowney’s play (or lack thereof) has himself on the outside looking in. He only has two sacks this season, well off the pace he had last season, when he finished with 13. More notably, he recently held himself out of a game against Kentucky with a rib strain, causing a ton of controversy.
Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier initially expressed a lot of displeasure with Clowney sitting out a game with an injury that most players play through, and hinted that Clowney has been taking plays off this season. Later, however, Spurrier retracted this sentiment, praising Clowney for all that he has already done for the program.
What this brings us back to is the endless debate of how much an unpaid college athlete should leave out on the field, when millions of dollars from a top NFL draft pick are right on the horizon.
One side of the argument might say star college athletes’ only inspiration for playing is to prove their values to professional teams (and, of course, that whole education thing, but since when was that ever the interest of anybody?) and improve their stock in the draft. However, how can an NFL team trust your work ethic and want to draft you if you aren’t showing the competitive desire to play?
If Clowney plays and gets hurt, his draft stock goes kaput. After all, it was just last season that the Gamecock star saw his former teammate, then-junior running back Marcus Lattimore, suffer a horrifying knee injury and drop millions of dollars in draft position. However, if he stays on the sidelines, or plays with reduced effort, he gives off the vibe he is a me-only guy, someone who does not have the best interest of his team.
My solution: The NCAA has to either pay athletes based on the revenue they generate or rework its insurance policy. Currently, the only way you get any compensation for a terrible injury is if it ends your career. By these rules, Lattimore, who will never be the same explosive player he once was, and potentially not make as much money, still is not entitled to a settlement because he was still able to work toward a professional career after going through rehab. If Clowney were to suffer an injury that would be so terrible he can never make it in the pros, he would receive the maximum settlement from the Exceptional Student-Athlete Disability Program of $5 million, compared to the average $21.2 million contract the top three picks signed in 2012.
With college athletes not getting paid and not having much in the form of insurance, final years like Clowney’s are going to become increasingly common. Players will be looking ahead to the NFL, making their primary concern keeping themselves in one piece. College games will lose grit and passion, as the players become more and more complacent.
Can you really blame a top prospect for sitting out games, either? Redshirt-junior Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby has taken himself out of the first round in many mock drafts with his underwhelming performance this season. Last year, former USC quarterback Matt Barkley chose to stay for his senior year, because he likely would have been drafted behind two of the biggest quarterback prospects in a decade. He ended up being taken in the fourth round of one of the weakest quarterback drafts in some time because of his poor senior year.
Clowney’s cautious performance is a sign of things to come for any players with an inevitable NFL future, as long as their only hope to make a living out of the sport they built their life around is to make it through their college years unscathed. It’s hard to be a fan of this attitude, and I’m sure NFL teams aren’t either, but college athletes are here for the same reason every student is: to build necessary career skills and make your way into the professional circuit. If they have to play it safe in order to make a living later, that is what many will choose to do.
And, to be honest, I cannot blame them at all for that.