Tradition. Pageantry. School spirit. Rivalries. Underdogs and Rudy. Not-yet-spoiled athletes chasing glory, and doing it all for the love of the game. College sports used to mean so many things to so many people. And they still do, to a certain extent.
But I, for one, am not excited about the direction in which thing are headed. Call me old school or stuck in the past, maybe even bitter. I just can’t get over the fact that we have damn-near 30-year olds competing for their third or fourth school, in their sixth or seventh year of eligibility. I have at least made peace with the fact that college athletes are being compensated for their time, effort, and ability — as they should!
But grown-ass adults, paying a mortgage and renting cars they can drive to soccer or volleyball practice? Well-traveled vagabonds doing their best Wooderson impression in order to avoid filling out job applications? What are we even doing!?
For the record, this is not a shot at Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett. Ohio State (football) is set to play UGA in the upcoming Peach Bowl, and I can see how some would make that connection. Bennett, 25, began playing college football in 2017, but as a walk-on. He then spent a year at JuCo, before re-joining the Bulldogs’ program in 2019. So one could say he at least took a semi-traditional route. And he certainly worked his way up the ladder in Athens.
However, the same does not hold true for many other super seniors and those who have mastered the intricacies of the NCAA transfer portal.
While I am all for second chances and players (or anybody, really) chasing their dream, the freebie Covid season and relaxed transfer and eligibility rules have caused chaos throughout college athletics — in my humble opinion. This issue is most prevalent in college football, where there are essentially no rules governing movement of the highest number of athletes. There are comparisons to be made, between coaches and players, but those comps are not apples to oranges. And let’s not draw parallels between sports and “real life” either, because a transfer portal does not exist outside of the NCAA.
Coaches from every college sport come and go, seemingly as they please. However, we should not ignore the obvious caveats and consequences. Coaches are paid professionals. Student athletes are not. Coaches are held accountable by terms of a contract. Student athletes are not — at least not in the same way(s). Coaches can be fired for performance, whereas student athletes are not stripped of their scholarship after a missed field goal or strikeout in the bottom of the ninth. And what happens when a coach wants to leave their current position before said contract is up? They, or their new employer, is forced to pay back or shell out big money as part of a buyout agreement.
Are Jimmy and/or Sally expected to do the same if they enter the transfer portal mid-season? I don’t think so. And a new coach can be brought in (theoretically) at any moment, meaning a spot does not have to go to waste. On the other hand, if a player leaves the Buckeyes’ football, basketball, or wrestling team unannounced, his or her roster spot is likely to remain vacant for an extended period of time. OSU cannot go out and immediately hire some kid grinding away at the JuCo level.
At the end of the day, people need to look out for their own best interests, as well as those of their respective families — and I get that. I also acknowledge that the NCAA does not exactly bend over backwards to help many (or any). But do not act as if Mark Emmert and his cronies are the only selfish figures here. Jumping from school to school, and/or taking one post-grad underwater basket weaving class just to remain eligible is a selfish act. One with the potential unintended consequence of taking a high school kid’s roster spot. All because you – some random, hypothetical fourth-year senior – are not ready to grow up and move on.
Perhaps I am being petty and vindictive. Maybe I am jealous I never got the opportunity to hang out at thematic college bars for six years, or do so in Tempe, AZ (Arizona State University) or even Madison, WI (University of Wisconsin). All reasonable assumptions, and at times I can definitely be one or even all of the above. But I want to stress that I only have an issue with individuals who take advantage of a broken system to stay in school and play literal games.
Were they also taken advantage of, at some point, as a student athlete? Probably. So were many before them... such is life. That does not mean I am going to champion the cause of misguided hangers-on who roam campus under the false pretense of being a college athlete.
Case in point: J.T. Daniels, current “free agent” quarterback, most recently of the West Virginia Mountaineers. No offense to Daniels, I’m sure he is a hell of a person. He is also currently searching for his fourth university at which to play college football. The reason? Because he has not played well enough to earn or hold down a starting role at various stops throughout the country (USC, UGA, WVU)… That’s it. That is the sole reason Daniels keeps signing on with other programs.
He has not met expectations, so he continues to canvas the CFB world for coaches and coaching staffs who are foolish enough to make him a promise RE: playing time. When he inevitably does find his next opportunity, he will do so armed with one and possibly even two more years of eligibility. And according to at least one sports columnist in Oregon, Daniels also comes with a list of demands for his superior services. What. A. World.
But Daniels is just one of many — playing football, basketball, or what have you. His name stands out to me because his actions come across as those of a spoiled kid who never got his way. Ohio State had Tate Martell, half of FBS has now had J.T. Daniels. Jack Abraham of Missouri is another example. Granted, he has dealt with a few injuries, but he signed with Louisiana Tech in 2016! Missouri is/was his fifth school, and he threw eight passes this season. Two of which were picked off, so I am glad it was worth the wait.
Kyle Pugh has Daniels and Abraham both beat, as the Northern Illinois linebacker just completed his eighth (!) year as part of the Huskies’ program. Credit to him though, as he overcame injury after injury, and was productive when on the field. Pugh also earned two master’s degrees. But as impressive as I find his resilience and commitment to academics (and football) to be, I still think Pugh wore out his welcome a few years ago.
My larger point is this: I don’t ever want college sports to become a bunch of Woodersons. 24, 25-year old adults taking a single class to barely remain eligible, so they can play a kids game — while on the field with actual kids! Many are simply delaying the inevitable. Which is, a job at the local post office or insurance office, punching a clock like the rest of us. Glorious? Hell no. But it’s real life!
These same athletes are doing themselves and others a major disservice. They are holding a spot in line, for an exclusive club they will never get into. So grow up, Peter Pan. Count Chocula. It’s time to move on.