At SEC Media Days on Tuesday, Steve Spurrier admitted he no longer tries to discourage underclassmen from declaring for the NFL draft: “Any time one of them tells me he wants to go pro, I shake his hand and say ‘good luck, I’m all for you.’ I think the day of a coach trying to talk a kid into staying is not smart.” John Calipari is infamous for recruiting McDonald’s All-Americans with the express purpose of preparing them to make a leap to the NBA in just a season or two. This is the most humane approach a coach can adopt in a system that bars players from pursuing their vocation professionally until they’re out of high school for a set amount of time. Every time an athlete who is ready right now to play for big bucks steps on a college field or court, he’s endangering his livelihood. He could pick up an injury that seriously diminishes his stock, or worse, his career could end prematurely.
The workaround for this, for some college athletes, is to have their families take out an insurance policy that gives them some percentage of the money they’re projected to earn as pros if something horrible happens before they put pen to paper on a multi-million dollar contract. The problem is, these policies aren’t cheap. Jadeveon Clowney, as the number one pick in the 2014 draft, recently signed a deal that would pay him $14.5 million if the Texans cut him tomorrow. You don’t get covered for something in the neighborhood of $15 million by kicking an insurance company 50 bucks a month.
Texas A&M guard Cedric Ogbuehi probably would have gone in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft. The league sent him four separate grades from teams that had him going somewhere in the first 32 picks. Ogbuehi declined to enter draft and return for his senior season on the condition that he could take out an insurance policy that would take care of him financially if he gets hurt. Here’s what unusual: Ogbuehi isn’t paying for the policy. A&M is going to foot the bill, which is going to be between $50,000 and $60,000. Essentially, coach Kevin Sumlin’s pitch to Ogbuehi and his family after this past season ended was that if Ogbuehi came back for another year, he would be foregoing the opportunity to make millions of dollars right away, but he might also develop into a top-five pick. In order to get Ogbuehi to bet on his coach and himself, the school agreed to take part of the $350,000 they have available to them in what’s called a student assistance fund, and put it toward getting Ogbuehi some guaranteed financial protection.
This $350,000 is a relatively newly available pool of money that schools can use to buy a player a suit for a media event or to fly him home in case of a family emergency. It can also, apparently, be used to more or less buy a player’s commitment. It’s unclear whether A&M is going against the spirit of how this money should be spent, but they’re not technically breaking any rules. They’re safe in the knowledge that Ogbuehi will be with them in 2014, and Ogbuehi has been reassured that, if some catastrophe befalls him, he’ll be compensated.
Right-minded fans and media members have been railing against the NCAA for a while, and it seems like we’re beginning to see a future in which the NCAA either doesn’t exist at all or is a much different kind of organization — one that recognizes football and men’s basketball players as workers, not students, and treats them that way. The anti-NCAA fight needs to continue because Mark Emmert and company are going to forestall the NCAA’s reform/demolition for as long as they can. But in the meantime, this student assistance fund represents a more humane way of doing things within a system that’s fundamentally flawed.
Asked if he would have returned to A&M had the school not offered to pay for his insurance, Ogbuehi said “No, I don’t think so.” If a player has proven to NFL talent evaluators that he’s ready to turn pro, but his coach wants him back, why should the player assume all the risk in order to return? College football is brutally unfair to its athletes, but at least Ogbuehi, through this new policy, is getting a little bit of the security he deserves.