Fournette is exposing larger NCAA problem

For most college football players, the best thing for them to do to improve their draft stock is to perform at the college football level. That will usually punch their ticket to the NFL. Doing it at an SEC school is even better. That shows scouts that you can perform against college football’s best.

LSU LogoLeonard Fournette is doing everything right so far at Louisiana State University. He is dominating the NCAA field at an SEC school and drawing comparisons to some of the best in college football history. Already, we’ve heard names like “Emmitt” or “Herschal” thrown around when describing the phenom running back.

NFL scouts have already seen enough of Fournette to justify taking him when he is eligible to come join the NFL. Through five games this year, he has amassed 1022 yards on the ground on 8.6 yards per carry. Pair that with his 12 touchdowns and you have a solid season for a lot of college backs. Fournette has reached those marks in only half a season.

The issue is though, Fournette isn’t eligible to jump to the NFL until the 2017 NFL draft. He looks pro-ready today but NFL rules state that he must wait until after his junior season to apply for the draft. So now Fournette faces a very tough decision. Should he continue to play for the Tigers, or should he sit out his junior season to cement his draft status?

Fournette could probably sit out the entire 2016 college season and still go in the top half of the first round if he continues to stay in shape and performs well at the combine.

Many have called Fournette selfish for thinking that way but honestly can you blame him? NFL first round picks sign contracts worth millions of dollars. Todd Gurley, a former running back from Georgia, signed a contract this season after being drafted 10th overall that was worth up to $13.8 million over four years. The contract guaranteed $9.3 million over the four years and Gurley received a $2 million signing bonus upon signing the contract.

All of that is probably pretty comparable to what Fournette would stand to make and honestly it is probably below what he is worth. Many are viewing the LSU back as the best running back prospect since Adrian Peterson. He would likely go higher than 10th overall and with the increase over the next two years, his contract would probably be even a little larger.

So we are talking probably upwards of $20 million on the line here for Fournette. All he has to do is stay healthy and avoid a drop off heading into the draft. The only problem is that there is no easy way to avoid injury other than to sit out. Fournette has nothing financially from the NCAA to fall back on if he blows out his knee or develops a hernia. His draft stock would plummet and he might not even make it to the NFL.

Marcus LattimoreThinking for the future makes too much sense at this point. We see it happen to players, especially running backs all the time. A couple of years ago, Marcus Lattimore suffered a gruesome knee injury that derailed his promising college career. Lattimore was a lock for a first round pick but the October injury where he tore every ligament in his knee and dislocated it obviously set him back. He had surgery and began rehab as soon as possible. He declared for the NFL draft in December knowing that it was his best shot at going pro. He fell all the way to the fourth round to the 49ers. He signed a four-year deal worth up to $8.5 million but with only a $300,000 signing bonus. Lattimore spent two seasons on San Francisco’s reserve roster before finally retiring when he realized he would never be able to play again.

Obviously, that is an extreme example but it is not the only one. Just a week ago, Nick Chubb suffered a serious knee injury where he tore several ligaments and damaged cartilage. His ACL was not one of the ligaments torn, which gave doctors hope at first, but now reports have surfaced saying that the injury could be career ending. He will have surgery soon but the outlook is less than positive. Heading into this season, Chubb was a projected first round pick for 2017, just like Fournette.

Matt BarkleyThen there are players who avoided injury but still saw their draft stock plummet due to poor play. Matt Barkley is the perfect example of a player who was deemed NFL ready, but who decided to stay in college another year. He seemed to be a certain top 10 pick in the 2012 draft but Barkley decided to stay at USC for his senior year. Barkley muddled through an up and down season and then fell to the fourth round of the NFL draft in 2013.

It is hard to shame Fournette for considering sitting out and it will be harder still if he decides to skip his junior year. He has every right to and he would be protecting his future, which is completely uninsured by the NCAA.

Each NCAA athlete has a health insurance policy of $90,000 for medical expenses. They are willing to cover other costs such as in-home care if it is required but there is no way for students to ever recoup any of the money they might have made.

There is no sure-fire way to solve this situation and I won’t pretend to know what it is. It might be to compensate athletes. It might be to provide some sort of insurance if athletes are unable to continue to the professional level due to injuries sustained while playing in college. All I know is that it needs to change. If the NCAA can profit as much as it does from these kids, then there should be a way for the kids to get compensation for a major career-altering or ending injury.

If the NCAA refuses to pay athletes, guarantee insurance fund for those who cannot continue to the pros because of injury or some combination of the two, it will continue to see Leonard Fournettes in the future. If Fournette sits, he will set a precedent. There will be players who believe that they have shown enough talent and ability to make the jump to the league and will refuse to continue playing in college. It will hurt the college game in terms of the level of play and could begin to undermine college football as a whole.

This development would be many years down the line but it is not unrealistic if the NCAA does not find a solution. Players who have serious aspirations of playing in the pros view college as a stepping stone and if they can find a way to minimize the risk that comes with that stepping stone, you can bet they are going to take it.

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Fighting to be considered Elite

And then there were 16. Must be pretty sweet to still be dancing at this point in the tournament. Each region has it’s own story. The Midwest is still Kentucky’s to lose but apparently West Virginia (who busted my bracket last week) believe that Kentucky’s perfection ends tonight when the two teams take the court. Witchita State is still alive and kicking as well. In the East, the top seeds have fallen and the remaining matchups read eight versus four and three versus seven. Upsets have riddled this side of the bracket as Virginia and Villanova fell last weekend. Out West, the bracket has avoided too many upsets, as Baylor is the sole top-four seed not to reach the Sweet 16, only to be replaced by sixth-seeded Xavier. Down South, old school powers meeting the new kids on the block. UCLA is the surprise in the regional semi-final as an eleven seed in this one. All of these storylines mean we are in for a great four days of basketball.

Midwest

#1 Kentucky vs. #5 West Virginia: West Virginia freshman Daxter Miles Jr. made it clear that he does not think much of Kentucky. He called them out for not playing hard. That sounds like something you should do after you have beaten them if you ask me. Kentucky will come into this game with even more of something to prove now than ever before. The Wildcats rank third in the country in defensive scoring and second in blocks. That will spell trouble for a Mountaineer team that already does not shoot the ball very well from the field.

#3 Notre Dame vs. #7 Witchita State: Many said that the Shockers would be a tough matchup for Kansas and that proved to be true as Witchita rolled through the Jayhawks. However, I think the run stops here for the Shockers. They will have their eyes set on a rematch with Kentucky after the Wildcats knocked them out of the tournament last year and ended their perfect season. I don’t think Witchita gets the chance though. The Irish are battled tested with victories in a couple of close games. Notre Dame has only dropped one game in past eleven, I think they will move on to the Elite Eight.

West

#1 Wisconsin vs. #4 North Carolina: This is a tough one to call. UNC has the talent and ability to beat anyone in the country, and I mean anyone, when they are firing on all cylinders. However, they aren’t playing at their best very often. This Tar Heel squad is often streaky and they are facing one of the most consistently dominant teams in America tonight. The Heels rank second in the country for rebounds and assists per game this year though. That is a pretty tough combination to top. If Marcus Paige is on, UNC marches on to the next round.

#2 Arizona vs. #6 Xavier: The Musketeers were fortunate to have made it this far if you ask me. With games against Ole Miss and Georgia State, Xavier has yet to play a team that is not a double-digit seed. That said, they might stand a chance in the Sweet 16, if they were playing a team other than Arizona. The Wildcats have won by fewer than 10 points just once since playing Utah back in February. That one game? It was against UCLA, another Sweet 16 team. Arizona advance.

East

#4 Louisville vs. #8 North Carolina State: Raise your hand if you picked this game to happen. I wish I could say I did. NC State really busted my bracket last week when they knocked out Villanova, whom I had in the finals. As if this game was not important enough, this is rematch between ACC teams. The Wolfpack won the first time around but with Louisville finally starting to find a bit of a rhythm offensively, the Cardinals will be the ones who get to keep dancing a little longer.

#3 Oklahoma vs. #7 Michigan State: I didn’t predict this game correctly either. I had Dayton pulling the upset of Oklahoma but the Sooners ruined my fun. However, the Spartans looked convincing in their last two wins, especially Sunday against Virginia. Travis Trice caught fire against the Cavaliers, and if he does again on Friday, that could mean lights out for Oklahoma. I’ve got Tom Izzo’s crew heading to the next round.

South

#1 Duke vs. #5 Utah: This one will be fun to watch. We get to see Jahlil Okafor and the highlight reel that is Duke’s offense pitted against a Utah squad that excels in locking down the defensive end of the floor. The Utes ranked eleventh in the country this season in points allowed per game. Moreover, Utah has seven-footer Jakob Poeltl to contend with Okafor. Watch these two freshmen battle it out in the paint should be an entertaining matchup. I still think Duke has too many offensive weapons for Utah to contain. Blue Devils slide into the Elite Eight.

#2 Gonzaga vs. #11 California Los Angeles: Talk about a surprise guest. There were not too many people who foresaw UCLA in the Sweet 16. The Bruins were a bubble team to begin with. Gonzaga has been good this season but this has every element of a trap game to it. I think the Bruins will come out with a chip on their shoulder and give the Zags a tough test early. If Gonzaga can weather that test than they will be fine. If they falter early, like I think they will, UCLA will continue their Cinderella run.

Even as we approach the Sweet 16, many college athletes can be left bitter

The NCAA tournament is in full swing at the moment as the Sweet 16 will take place at the end of this week. However, it seems the NCAA is never safe from scrutiny. President Obama cast his lot into the conversation regarding the corrupt and questionable practices of college athletics’ governing body. He made a couple of different points but the one that rung out the strongest to me was his criticism of players losing scholarships due to injury. The NCAA allows programs to revoke scholarships from players who are injured or who are cut from their respective teams.

What the NCAA continually does to college athletes is something like this. And yes I am looking at you Mark Emmert:

Let’s say that you want to learn how to cook better, so you decide to take some cooking lessons. Upon signing up for the lessons, you discover that the first four months of classes are free. This is a great deal for you, probably all of the classes you might need, and looking at the price, you probably would not be able to afford the classes otherwise. So, you begin taking classes at this local cooking shop and begin learning all sorts of new skills from a chef acting as your teacher. A week or so in, you begin to make your own dishes. The chef continually tells you that you should be researching recipes and practicing on your own time, but you have a full-time job that is meant to take your priority so this is a difficult task.

About a month into your classes, you hurt yourself during one of the sessions. You cut yourself fairly deep on your hand with a knife after you slip up chopping vegetables. An honest mistake but now you cannot go to the cooking classes for the next month due to the stitches in your hand. You take time and heal properly, just as your doctor and teacher tell you, and then return to the class.

Upon your return, someone who works higher up in the corporation that runs the cooking class approaches you. He tells you that because you missed the past month of classes, you are no longer eligible for the discount and you will need to start paying to take the cooking classes now. You complain that you were injured in one of the classes and that the injury was outside of your control. The man insists that there is no other way for you to continue attending the cooking school and you must find a way to pay.

In that story, you are fundamentally wronged and loose out an opportunity to do something you really enjoy because the school turned its back on you. Everyone recognizes that what happened is morally wrong. Yet, this happens to college athletes over and over again. And the scary thing is that there is very little that the NCAA requires colleges to provide regarding healthcare. In fact, most of the healthcare services are optional for schools to provide. So not only are they at risk of losing their scholarships due to the injury, they are not guaranteed to have any medical costs covered. Schools will occasionally cover the fees of surgeries for students but they are not required to and that they are not is what is concerning.

There are many things fundamentally wrong with the NCAA. The amount of money they make while maintaining they are a non-profit is one. The fact that they are exploiting young, college students is another. But pulling away a kid’s hopes and dreams due to an injury sustained while playing for a university under the NCAA is awful. This issue falls on both the school’s and the NCAA’s shoulders to fix, as they are both equally to blame. Schools are not required to honor scholarships; that does not meant they cannot honor them. And the NCAA, does not require schools to honor scholarships, which is sickening. People can talk all they want about how college athletes should be paid (I’m not saying they should or should not) and how the NCAA is exploiting students. Above all else, the NCAA needs to begin protecting the kids who suffer serious injuries playing collegiate athletics. That has got to be the top priority. If you want to maintain that these kids are student-athletes, with the student part coming first, then do not take away their chance to be a student because they got hurt being an athlete.