The biggest danger to South Carolina defensive lineman Jadeveon Clowney is not the hypothetical hit, the chop block he never sees coming and that blows out his knee. The biggest danger is the only person who stands to lose in that scenario is him.
The NFL teams that covet him do not lose anything, not anything beyond having to rearrange him on a dry-erase board in a draft room. The Gamecocks lose a little more, a key player, yet that is the price of poker in sports. Injury is part of that game; lose a guy and move on. The one who stands to lose the most is the one with no power over his situation.
And Clowney and every player before and after him deserves better.
The truth is how a Charlotte Observer column about Clowney possibly skipping his junior year and training by himself for the 2014 NFL Draft became an actual talking point. Many took that proposal as real when it was really a hypothetical because we know how screwed up this system is — with free money-making labor for universities, a free quality farm system for the NFL and almost every ounce of risk heaped upon the player.
None of this is earth-shattering. The usual suspects — talking points about paying players, the fairness of preventing players from entering the NBA or NFL when they want — cycle through the news every so often, usually after a catastrophic injury to a big-name talent.
The latest was Nerlens Noel, a phenomenal freshman for Kentucky who severed his ACL last week and maybe his chances of being the No. 1 overall selection in this year’s NBA Draft. I was talking to friend and FOXSports.com colleague Reid Forgrave before he wrote his excellent column on the subject last week, and we were debating the legitimacy of the hand wringing. All aspiring athletes face this danger, that of tearing or rupturing or breaking something before they have a chance to cash in on their ability.
What I kept coming back to was this: It’s the venue.
The danger is there for all aspiring athletes. The difference for the college football or basketball player is they are assuming all of the risk and reaping very little of the reward.
Clowney is blessedly injury-free and staring down the most harrowing year of his life. He will play for South Carolina this fall; of this, I am sure. My guess is he will be holding his breath for a good portion of this season, hoping a knee does not give, an awkward crash immobilize him or he’s the victim of any of the 457 other ways football breaks a body down.
Please do not talk to me about insurance, about how Clowney has the option for the NCAA’s Exceptional Student-Athlete Disability Insurance Program.
This program provides only an illusion of security and is filled with so much of the BS that defines the NCAA. In the goodness of their hearts, this unethical organization allows a player to take out a loan through an outside broker to pay for premiums on a policy that could pay him up to $5 million in case of a career-ending injury that prohibits him from going pro.
Let us count the hypocritical, unfair, BS things in this sentence alone.
1. A kid who is helping to make millions upon millions of dollars for a university is forced to borrow and pay back money to buy insurance.
2. The player needs that insurance because the NFL and NBA, in collusion with college football and basketball, have rules in place that force him to play where he has no security and needs insurance.
3. Five million is crazy low. It is not how much Clowney is worth. It is not even his signing bonus. It in no way properly compensates him for what he might lose.
4. That money only comes if his injury is career-threatening. So if Noel, for example, merely injured himself, he is out of luck. This is actually the worst-case scenario. If he is merely damaged goods — not the player he could have been, not drafted as high as he would have been, not capable of making as much money as he otherwise would have — insurance doesn’t cover it.
This is a problem of nobody being charged with looking out for the long-term best interest of the college basketball or football player except that player.
If the Nationals draft a pitching phenom, they have a vested interest in playing the long game. The Double-A manager knows the bigger goal is the development of the player, not winning a single game. They are monitoring his every step, his pitch counts, how many tosses he has in the bullpen. The goals of the player and the organization are mostly aligned. With football and basketball players, however, the goals of the college coach do not have anything to do with what the NFL wants or what is in the best interest of the player.
There is no one minding the long game for the players. So we are asking 19-year-old kids and their parents to navigate these shark-infested waters and do the right thing by their careers. In the case of Clowney, his mom Joseanna told Sports Illustrated that she is looking forward to retiring when her son signs an NFL contract, but “I enjoy the college games so much. I enjoy the scenery and the stadiums. I would never want him to sit out a year.”
This is the problem. This is who has been left to mind the long-term career of Clowney — not an agent, not a coach, not a team with a big-time investment in him. Instead, it is a big-hearted mom and himself. This is the biggest danger for Clowney, the fact that the only person who stands to lose in that scenario is him.
And if he has to assume all the risk, then every single option needs to be open and available to him.
Leaving for the NFL when he’s ready.
Getting a big, fat insurance policy.
Hiring an agent to guide him from high school to the NFL.
Anything else is more typical BS from the NCAA and universities about their care and concern for student-athletes.