Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Noble, Stupid, or Cowardly?

Many sports fans have heard the news that University of Washington QB Jake Locker has decided to forgo the NFL draft and return to play his senior year in college. Based on the commentary I've heard, opinions about his decision have more or less polarized with some calling his decision a "noble commitment to finishing his college career" and others calling it "so stupid he might be related to Ryan Leaf ". Let's explore those arguments.

The "noble" argument is buttressed by our national penchant for valuing commitment to a chosen endeavor. But let's not kid ourselves here, to whom and to what did Locker commit? Certainly not to the University as it is widely understood that big time football programs use athletes to rake in huge revenues, none of which are shared with the athletes who attract those funds. Perhaps he has a commitment to himself or to his family that he will finish his education but that is a deal that can be consummated at any time, it needn't happen next year when the NFL is calling.

The "stupid" argument is built on the fact that he is projected to be taken high in the NFL draft, perhaps as high as #1 overall, where he could expect some $20-$30 million in guaranteed money. For perspective, one could earn a six figure salary for an entire 40 year career and still earn less than $5m cumulatively. We are talking about a boat load of money that will evaporate if he gets injured in his senior year.

While the risk of a serious injury may be on the small side, the risk of playing slightly less spectacularly next year is quite high. After all, it is difficult for an individual in a team sport to perform at a consistently high level in a rapidly changing environment like a college football program. Nonetheless, a down year would have a similar, if less dramatic, impact on his draft prospects. In fact, even a senior year performance that is equally impressive as the junior year he just completed would indicate that he has plateaued and could cause him to drop precipitously in the draft. Falling into the second round or below might mean signing for a measly couple of million dollars. The point is that his stock is as high now as it can go for a college player. No matter how well he plays next year; it can only go down from here.

To these two arguments, I will offer a third perspective: I think he may not have the confidence to take the next step and face the next challenge.

He is a local kid who went to college close to home. He is comfortable in college where he knows he can succeed and meet the challenge. The NFL, on the other hand, represents a great unknown where he may or may not find success. I think his decision may be neither the product of a noble commitment to the University nor of a poor grasp of financial planning; I think he may simply be opting to stay in his comfort zone.

If I were an NFL talent scout (and I should be), this would represent a very big red flag for me when he does enter the draft.

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