For a while on Thursday, it wasn’t clear whether USC quarterback Matt Barkley was announcing his plans for playing football in 2012 or running for public office.
And then, at one point, Barkley’s micro-Favre “will-he-or-won’t-he” routine seemed like a bad SNL skit, especially when he was abruptly interrupted while standing in front of a Christmas tree decorated with, among other things, full-size french horns by eleven piping pipers, twelve drumming drummers, and two of the nine ladies dancing.
Ultimately, Barkley made it clear that he’ll be staying at USC. While he’s not the first player to pass up an opportunity to pass the football at the highest level, he’s the most recent — and thus he’ll become the centerpiece of the debate regarding whether guys should leave early.
Most football players play college football because they hope to play pro football. Statistically speaking, few ever do. But when a college player is deemed ready to play at the next level, it’s akin to a Doogie Howser-style student, who has accelerated his studies and thus has become ready to graduate. While that typically means departing before finishing the requirements of a degree, a degree can always be obtained later, after the pro playing career has ended.
The vague notion that the degree should be obtained before leaving for the NFL comes at least in part from the college coaches who want to see the kids continue to play for free preying on the fairly linear thinking in which parents and grandparents who didn’t go to college often engage. For families who have yet to see a child march with cap and gown, getting the degree becomes almost as important as getting paid to play football.
In the end, getting paid to play football should be the primary concern. At the college level, they aren’t. (Presumably.) Players like Barkley put themselves at risk on every snap. A serious injury could permanently derail the dream to play in the NFL — or, at a minimum, delay it significantly.
But at least the player will be able to earn dramatically less money in another industry, thanks to his degree.
The new rookie wage scale makes it even more important to strike while the iron is hot. For starters, the financial difference that results from moving up only one pick in the top 10 has become dramatically smaller than it used to be, reducing the benefit of returning to school for a year and bumping up the draft stock by a few spots. And with the truly big money now delayed until the player makes it to his second NFL contract, it’s more important than ever to start ticking off the years under that first NFL contract.
Some will now compare Matt Barkley to Matt Leinart, the last USC quarterback to decide to exhaust his eligibility. Significant differences exist, however. Leinart had accomplished everything that he could have accomplished at the college level, winning a Heisman and a national title — along with earning that all-important degree. When he decided to take ballroom dancing and a victory lap or two around sorority row, Leinart triggered real questions about whether he wants to be a football player, or whether he wants to be a celebrity.
For Barkley, NCAA sanctions have kept him from pursuing a BCS title or a Pac-Whatever championship. It surely also kept him from being a serious candidate for a Heisman Trophy. And so his college experience isn’t truly complete.
Regardless, any decision to stick around by a college athlete will conjure memories of what Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino supposedly tells his players who are deemed to be ready to make the jump to the NBA.
“You can go and help your family,” Pitino says. “Or you can stay and help mine.”