The public spat this week between Nick Saban and one of his former protégées, Ronnie Harrison raised the spectre of college players leaving the college game early to seek fame and fortune in the NFL.
To me the ongoing commentary and debate seems to be more about Saban’s criticism of student athletes leaving school programmes early. But the Alabama Head Coach wasn’t suggesting that players shouldn’t leave their college programme’s early. Saban was saying players and their advisors need to be smarter about it.
Ex Alabama and current Jacksonville Jaguar safety, Ronnie Harrison left the Crimson Tide last year, a year early to declare for the draft. He was drafted in the third round by the Jaguars. So it worked out for him. But that’s not quite how his former Head Coach saw it.
“If you’re a third-round draft pick, and we had one here last year — I’m not going to say any names — goes and starts for his team, so he’s making third-round money, which is not that great,” Saban said Saturday. “He’d be the first guy taken at his position this year, probably, and make $15-18 million more. So, the agent makes out, the club makes out, and now they’ve got a guy that’s going to play for that kind of money for three more years.” Saban is quoted.
So what his Head Coach is saying is that if he had waited and seen out his final year at College he would have been a first round pick earning significantly more than he is at present.
Ronnie Harrison saw it differently, suggesting that his ex Head Coach was “butt hurt” because his team had been weakened by players leaving the programme early.
But both have missed crucial points which make this an ongoing and heated debate. This along with the payment of players in the college game are the most controversial talking points in Sport.
So why is Nick Saban wrong? Well Coach’s point ignores the risk of a player getting injured in his senior year. We already see players missing bowl games so as to avoid injury – so a full final season takes that risk and multiplies it by a minimum of twelve or thirteen games depending on schedule.
And who can blame the player for wanting to avoid a career ending injury in what is an explosive and physically demanding game. Notwithstanding this, the set up and facilities at programme’s such as Alabama, Texas A&M, Michigan, Notre Dame are world class and in many ways better than their NFL counterparts (you have to see some of these facilities to believe them). So an injured player at these programmes is likely to be treated very effectively.
But herein lies the rub. Irrespective of Ronnie Harrison’s criticism, the coaching teams do have the players’ interests at heart. We can debate all day about the way College systems exploit student athletes.
But I am sure this argument is in many ways central to the spat between Saban and Harrison. It’s about player control. To an extent it’s like a parent/ child tug of war. The parent thinks they have the childs interest at heart and the child wants to move out in to the big wide world.
And that probably sums this up more than Schools taking advantage of kids. Listen to any Head Coach for any length of time and you will hear someone who wants the best for his students. Sure the Head Coach wants to win. And dare I say, in many programmes has to win if he wants to keep coaching. But central to this is the student’s wellbeing, education and safety. Coaches wouldn’t be coaches for long if that wasn’t central to their raison d’être. And we have seen a number of high profile firings as a result of mistreatment recently to support this stance.But in many ways this is too simple an argument. It is a collective responsibility.
Under NCAA rules a student has to wait for 3 years post High School before applying to enter the draft.
So as a minimum a player is a Junior when they leave college. Under scholarship rules, it is likely that the student is close to or has graduated. So to the degree a student athlete can get a normal education, they have. In that respect, job done.
But then we get to the tricky juxtaposition of team v player.
And this is Saban’s point. If Harrison (or any other of a long list of players) had received the right advice, Ronnie Harrison would be entering this year’s draft as a round one prospect at Safety. Despite this being a generational draft for defensive talent.
And this is where Harrison’s argument fails. He wanted to play in the NFL. He wanted to be paid. He did and he has.
He also wanted to be paid his worth. And he wasn’t.
Saban’s argument was that Harrison should be getting paid as a first round talent. And that isn’t the case.
So in three years or whenever Harrison has to renegotiate his deal, he will be under pressure to negotiate hard and tough. I’m not going to compare to the Antonio Brown or OBJ scenarios but you can deduce the implications of having to get paid later in your career.
Nick Saban wasn’t crying about Harrison leaving. Alabama loses more talent to the NFL early than any other College programme on a rolling basis. Every year. And the programme deals with it.
In fact Harrison’s progression within a three period is due to others before him moving on. So he had benefitted from it. But he needs to recognise the strategy of exiting at the right time.
He is not the first and won’t be the last. Sad but true.
Photo credit : Ney York Post