I began my college football career with Texas Tech on Aug. 26, 2002. On the other side of the line of scrimmage, playing for Ohio State, was another player starting his first college game — Maurice Clarett.
I felt my game that day was pretty good; his was phenomenal. Maurice rushed for 175 yards and three touchdowns. Ohio State beat us, 45-21. Maurice would go on to lead Ohio State to a national championship that season/.
And that would be the last season of football Maurice would ever play.
He made mistakes, which he’ll freely discuss now, and eventually wound up in prison for armed robbery.
I earned two degrees from Tech, and after a stint in the NFL with the Indianapolis Colts, I went into business. The connections I made in college helped me to become a success.
There are significant differences between my experience and Maurice’s. I was an unheralded offensive lineman from a middle-class family in a small Texaspanhandle town. I had to redshirt my first year, and then earn my spot in my third season, as a redshirt sophomore.
This required a lot of work, and that builds good habits and character. That’s a big part of why I’ve been successful in my life and career.
Maurice was one of the first nationally televised signing of a high school player. He was treated like an elite professional even before he stepped foot onto the OSU campus. As he’ll tell you now, it was too much.
His story, especially in contrast to mine, demonstrates the potential dangers of over-professionalizing college sports.
The college football system worked for me. But for many college players, such as Maurice, it doesn’t.
Only 1.6 percent of college football players make it to the NFL. The NCAA is operating under an unsustainable model.
We must preserve the positives — including amateur athleticism and opportunity for talented, but lower-income kids — while protecting the athletes themselves from forces, both internal and external, that would wreck their dreams.
We must make the system fairer to the players to ensure its longevity.
The system was not originally created to take advantage of athletes, nor was it created to unfairly enrich coaches or the academic institutions that sponsor the teams. At the time that the NCAA framework was created, a scholarship was fair compensation for the value that players brought to the institutions.
NCAA regulations were intended to ensure fairness and parity, and to preserve the dignity and purity of amateur sport.
College athletics have become an integral part of American life. Fans might not know all the names of the individual players, but their loyalty to their colleges and universities guarantee that stadium seats fill up and viewers tune in for games. There are the rare cases when fans come to check out the stars, but fandom is mainly driven by tradition.
The system became a victim of its own success. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote in NCAA v. Alston (2020), “Nowhere else in America can businesses get away with agreeing not to pay their workers a fair market rate on the theory that their product is defined by not paying their workers a fair market rate … And under ordinary principles of antitrust law, it is not evident why college sports should be any different.”
At the same time, we must guard against turning the NCAA into a new NFL. We should not fully “professionalize” college sports. College athletics are inherently different than the major professional sports leagues and have importance that extends far beyond money.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t help protect college athletes. To again quote Kavanaugh, coaches and college presidents can make seven-figure salaries, while “the student athletes who generate the revenues, many of whom are African-American and from lower-income backgrounds, end up with little or nothing.”
Legally, the 18-year-old college athlete is an adult, but the truth is that many of them are not prepared for or capable of navigating the business world. Most do not have a concept of how to manage their personal finances and they are predisposed to making bad decisions. I can say this from first-hand experience.
Maurice Clarett succumbed to some of the temptations star athletes will always face. He has since turned his life around, and he’s now helping those with behavioral health and addiction issues.
But college athletics failed him, and it’s something that’s still happening to far too many players. As we search for answers, let’s remember that we must make the NCAA work for all student athletes, or else the system will implode under its own ambitions.