The Jadeveon Clowney saga isn’t over yet -- the All-American defensive end from South Carolina is practicing again, and may or may not take the field Saturday against Arkansas -- but I’ve seen all that I need to see.
Last week, Clowney pulled himself out of the Gamecocks' lineup shortly before kickoff because of a strained muscle near his rib cage. The critics quickly piled on. ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit and Colin Cowherd called Clowney “selfish.” Columnist Jason Whitlock said he didn’t love football.
Most notably, coach Steve Spurrier said derisively that he’d welcome Clowney back to the team, “if he wants to play.”
South Carolina had a situation on its hands. The solution, from a public relations standpoint anyway, was obvious. Quid pro quo. Clowney had to express his commitment to his team: “Am I fully committed? Always,” he said. “I'm not looking to sit out. I'm not that type of guy. I'm here for the team.” And Spurrier had to express his admiration for Clowney, which he did: “I just want to clear the air that Jadeveon -- all those No. 7 jerseys and all the money he has made for our school -- he has been a tremendous, important player. Every Gamecock, including me, the coaches and everybody else, we need to be appreciative that he chose South Carolina. He could have gone anywhere in the country. ... He is trying to do all he can to get ready to play.”
Nothing bothers me more than listening to people question the seriousness of athletes’ injuries -- I’m sorry, is that your body you’re talking about? -- but let’s say for the sake of argument that Clowney could gut it out and play through the pain Saturday. Why on earth should he?
Jadeveon Clowney has a 6-foot-6-inch, 270-pound asset that he has every right to protect. If he is being conservative with it, it’s because he’s part of a system that pays athletes nothing in college and millions if they reach the NFL intact. Clowney's critics are treating him as if he's some sort of spoiled millionaire who gets compensated for providing our weekend entertainment. He's not, and he doesn't.
A couple of weeks ago, a number of college athletes started scribbling the words “All Players United” on their equipment to send a message to the National Collegiate Athletic Association that they were tired of getting nothing out of the millions of dollars of revenue they create. Clowney’s own form of protest is less pointed but maybe more powerful: He is behaving like a rational market participant. As with players signing memorabilia for money or accepting under-the-table cash payments from boosters, it’s an example of free-market forces bearing down on the NCAA.
The NCAA insists that “amateurism” is what makes its product unique, that allowing players to get paid would hurt college sports. Clowney’s case suggests the exact opposite. The NCAA has basically created a disincentive for its star players to play.
What I don’t understand is why anyone would direct outrage at Clowney as opposed to the NCAA and its co-conspirators. (Including ESPN, which profits from Clowney’s appearance in televised games.) You want people at a tech startup to give their all? Give them stock options and other financial incentives. You want Jadeveon Clowney to give his all? Yet you call him “selfish” because he follows his financial incentives. Huh?
Of course, according to the NCAA, participation in college sports has nothing to do with money. The NCAA’s bylaws state that student-athletes “should be motivated primarily by education and by the physical, mental and social benefits to be derived.”
Tell that to the University of Alabama, which sent out a recruiting letter last summer with a background image of $51 million worth of checks made out to the nine Crimson Tide players selected in the 2013 NFL draft. Or, better yet, tell it to Jadeveon Clowney, who is just trying to protect his economic value until draft day, when the NCAA says it’s OK for him to realize it.
(Jonathan Mahler is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jonathanmahler.)