You have worked your entire life to achieve your dream job. You finally have the offer in your hands; the contract with that huge salary is all but signed. You can sign on the dotted line today and instantly achieve your goal, or you can hold off on accepting that job offer, go back to class, risk getting injured, perform under expectations and have your offer rescinded. The choice is easy: We take the first option. However, that choice is not always crystal clear when it comes to college football players.
This past week, Oklahoma (9-2, 9-0 Big XII) redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Charles Walker announced his decision to declare for the NFL draft, ending his career with the Sooners despite his team’s two remaining games on its schedule. Walker, who has not played since Oct. 1 after suffering a concussion against Texas Christian University (6-5, 4-4 Big XII), has come under tremendous scrutiny. He has been labeled a quitter, soft, weak and selfish. Even Mike Stoops, his defensive coordinator, criticized Walker’s decision, saying, “Quitting on your teammates, that’s hard to take as a coach.”
Focusing on his pending professional career is the only logical decision for the star athlete, as Walker’s current draft stock has him high on many mock drafts. Walker has nothing to gain from playing in these remaining games other than potential injury, which would lead to a decrease in potential earnings. His team has a minimal shot of making the playoffs. Walker has accomplished what he wanted in terms of college football: He progressed as a player and his professional dream is finally tangible.
Other star college football players should not hesitate to follow Walker’s lead. There is no need to risk a potential career with dream-crushing injuries in meaningless games. All too often we have seen the tragic consequences when athletes go out and play in what is arguably the most violent team sport.
Look no further than former South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore and former Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith.
In a meaningless October 2012 game, Lattimore, who was a 2012 Heisman favorite and thought to be a first-round pick in the upcoming NFL draft, suffered a horrific hit that dislocated his knee. He tore every ligament, resulting in significant nerve damage. This came just a year after tearing his ACL. Little did Lattimore know that the play would be the last snap of his football career.
Though Lattimore was selected in the fourth round of the 2013 NFL draft by the San Francisco 49ers, he never stepped on an NFL field. Lattimore went from the guaranteed millions of dollars that accompany a first-round draft pick to the low-level salary of a mid-round draft pick. Playing in a game that did not matter derailed his career and changed the trajectory of his life.
In January, Smith, a Butkus Award winner as the nation’s best linebacker, took the field in a meaningless Fiesta Bowl game against the Ohio State Buckeyes (11-1, 8-1 Big 10). Much like Lattimore, a single hit damaged his career. Smith was hit in the lower leg and suffered significant nerve damage to his knee. Doctors feared potential paralysis, let alone play football. Entering the game, Smith was rated as the top overall player on many draft boards.
Due to the injury, Smith fell from a top-five pick down to the Dallas Cowboys in the second round. He has failed to participate in any contact drills this year for Dallas. Again, another player, well on his way to achieving his lifelong goal, had everything taken away from him in the blink of an eye.
Yet, college athletes continue to give away football downs for free. Every snap they take is a gamble of their futures. Perhaps the biggest embodiment of this danger this season is Louisiana State’s (7-4, 5-3 SEC) Leonard Fournette. He is the consensus best running back in the country and cannot improve his stock value any further this season. He is virtually guaranteed a $25 million first-round contract, so long as he does not get hurt.
Since LSU has no shot of making the playoffs, there is no need for Fournette to risk his body and his livelihood in the remaining games this season. An injury could not only cost him money up front, but also reduce the longevity of his career.
We all go to college in order to best prepare us for our future job. There is no need to engage in frivolous activities and games that could only serve as a detriment to future careers. Stop holding players to unfair standards. Let them reach their dreams and not be criticized in the process.
Thomas Schlarp is a sophomore in the School of Nursing and Health Studies. The Stove appears every Tuesday.
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