In Football, Take the Money and Run

September 11, 2014

Written by David Schwartz

By David Schwartz

Maybe it lasted for only a minute. Perhaps it dragged on for hours. Time collapsed into itself last weekend at Kinnick Stadium when Brandon Scherff, the senior guardian of Iowa’s offensive line, lay on his back clutching his right leg.

Anyone but him.

That was my first thought, followed quickly by other greedy thoughts. That’s it – Iowa’s season is over. First the Hawkeyes will lose to Ball State, then to everyone else. What’s the point of season tickets when Iowa’s best hope, with Scherff hurt, is a late December bowl game sponsored by some also-ran company?

Like I said. Greedy thoughts.

The real issue, of course, should have been concern for Scherff’s long-term health. Scherff has more riding on this season than anyone associated with Iowa’s program, whether a player, coach, staff member or fan. Scherff risked everything – body, career, financial security, legacy – by returning to the Hawkeyes for his senior season. He didn’t need to come back. He would have been a Top 10 pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. Maybe Top 5. He came back for noble but illogical reasons.

Scherff returned to the game Saturday, but Tuesday he underwent surgery on his right knee and may miss a game or two. Meniscus repair is about as routine as a knee procedure can be, but it could have been so much worse. The injury serves as the latest example of why college athletes should turn pro when their earning potential peaks.

But …

“I can improve so much in all aspects,” Scherff said. “Run blocking, pass blocking, just trying to become a better leader and be a better player overall.”

Thing is, Scherff could have improved in the NFL. He said he came back to improve, but a college program is not the only place football players can do that. Do football players cease to develop after the age of 22?

Louis Vasquez, Ryan Kalil, Alex Mack and Jahri Evans were great college offensive linemen. Now they’re great NFL offensive linemen who improved once they got into professional weight rooms and onto professional practice fields and into professional games with professional coaches coaching them. With the added perk of million-dollar incomes.

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Money matters. Of course it does. Anyone who says money doesn’t matter is naïve or lying. It’s how we buy stuff. It improves lives. The more we have, the more secure we feel, the bigger our world becomes. We can take better vacations, retire younger, make some aspects of life easier for our children.

From a different perspective, the idea that college football is somehow more pure or noble than professional football is wrong. It’s irrefutable. College football players aren’t amateurs, they’re underpaid professionals who, in a perfect world, would feel obligated to owe their programs nothing more than hard work and professional, civil public behavior.

Here are two truths about the origins of college football that bust the myth of its pseudo-morality. First, college football’s original custodians made it “amateur” not to promote a love for the game, but to keep it upper class (remember, football developed in the Ivy League). Scholarships and salaries would have opened up their schools to undesirables (poor people), so, voila, college football became an amateur sport and only those who could afford college could play. Second, the term “student-athlete” was concocted by the NCAA in the 1950s to avoid a workmen’s compensation insurance claim. No, seriously

Some students major in engineering. Some major in education. Some major in statistics.

Others major in football.

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Scherff is a leisure studies major, which is a real thing. Many of the thousands of people across the U.S. who run recreation centers, community centers, Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCAs, health clubs and other types of public-service organizations were leisure studies majors. Scherff said he is on track to graduate in December. But, really, he’s a football major, and that’s OK.

Scherff is loyal to Iowa. Loyalty matters – in college, in life.

“I had the thought come in that I was staying the whole time [for my senior year],” Scherff said. “Meeting with Coach Brian [Ferentz] and Coach Kirk [Ferentz] just confirmed it all, and I just told them right there.”

There is more than one way to show loyalty to your university. Ndamukong Suh felt so appreciative toward his alma mater, Nebraska, that he made a $2 million donation to upgrade the football program’s technology. Former Hawkeye Adrian Clayborn continues to donate his time to charitable causes tied to the Iowa athletic program and Iowa City community.

Perhaps I’m overthinking Scherff’s decision to return. Maybe I’m projecting my own financial and professional desires onto Scherff, which isn’t fair to him. Maybe he just likes it in Iowa City. Maybe he really did not feel ready for the NFL. Maybe he promised himself or someone else he wouldn’t leave without his degree.

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But a college degree rarely matters in professional sports. Numbers are sketchy, but historically, an NFL career is not predicated on having a diploma. Whether it matters in life is up to the individual, but it doesn’t matter on the field, court or diamond. Only 4.3 percent of Major League Baseball players, for example, have a college degree.

And then there are the injuries. Former Alabama wide receiver Tyrone Prothro fractured his leg during his junior season and never played again. He’s a bank teller. Former South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore was considered a top NFL prospect after his freshman year, but NFL rules won’t allow a player into the league until the player has completed three years of college. Lattimore’s last two seasons included two massive leg injuries. He snuck onto an NFL roster, eventually, but his injuries cost him millions. Need another example? Ball State wide receiver Dante Love led the nation in receiving yards his senior season when a spinal injury ended his career. He can still walk.

I admire Scherff’s devotion to his education, his school and his improvement as a football player. When he went down against Ball State, however, although I don’t know the man, I feared for his professional future – even if he does have an insurance policy.

Football equals violence. The game will cruelly strike a player down at any moment.

College will be there when football is not, but the formula doesn’t necessarily work when you flip the equation. This issue is bigger than Scherff. It’s about professional ambition. It’s about livelihood.

I’m a Hawkeye fan. Iowa is better with Scherff on its offensive line than with him in the NFL. I’m also human. Scherff’s near-miss last weekend reminded us that when it comes to making football your professional goal, it’s better to strike while the iron is hot than cross your fingers and make a leap of faith that the game will wait for you.

Talk with Dave Schwartz on Twitter @daveschwartz.

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