The gruesome injury to South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore last Saturday was hard to stomach on so many levels.
The video of Lattimore’s dislocated right leg flopping unnaturally and the obvious agony it caused him was hard enough to watch.
The understanding of the torturous rehabilitation that Lattimore will have to go through once again just to have a chance to make it back onto the football field is tough to comprehend.
Those physical and mental tolls exerted on such a gifted and well-respected young man are significant. But if doctors’ assessments of his recovery chances are accurate, those costs might only be temporary.
But there’s another cost that Lattimore might never recover – his value to the NFL. Whether or not he ever gets strong enough to play again for the Gamecocks, his once can’t-miss professional career and the riches that come with it might never materialize.
For that reason, Lattimore seems to have a legitimate case to sue the NFL and the NCAA for lost wages as they conspired to deny him that career opportunity with a grossly unfair and un-American rule requiring players to be out of high school at least three years before being eligible for the NFL Draft.
The NFL has the most restrictive eligibility requirement in the world. It requires adults to serve three-year, unpaid collegiate apprenticeships before being allowed to pursue their careers. It doesn’t matter whether an 18-year-old freshman like Lattimore proves immediately that he has the strength and the durability to excel in college football’s toughest conference, he is required to put his health at risk for two more years before having the chance to capitalize on his unique gifts.
The NFL and NCAA say this rule is in place for the well-being of the young athletes whose bodies and training might not be ready for the physical demands of the NFL. In most cases, they are absolutely right.
But this rule is just a matter of convenience for everyone but the athlete. The college teams and their fans are secure in knowing they will get to exploit the unpaid services of its most talented players for at least three seasons. The NFL, in return, gets a no-cost farm system and eliminates the risk of making draft mistakes on players prematurely.
That doesn’t do guys like Lattimore a whole lot of good. As a heralded true freshman, he averaged nearly 124 total yards on 22 touches per game as he led the Gamecocks to their first appearance in the Southeastern Conference championship game. He even received Heisman Trophy consideration as one of the top running backs in the nation.
Had he been eligible, there is little doubt that an NFL team would have taken a chance with at least a second-round pick on a fresh-bodied running back like Lattimore with no history of significant injury. Former Gamecocks wide receiver Alshon Jeffery – the 45th overall pick by Chicago last year – signed a four-year, $4.52 million contract including a $1.75 million signing bonus.
With a rebuilt ACL last season in one knee and last week’s horrifying dislocation of the other, Lattimore might never see that kind of contract now.
I asked several Georgia Bulldogs players whether they thought the three-year rule was unfair, and they all surprisingly sided with the powers that be looking out for their own best interests.
“Everybody’s not ready and I feel like some people would probably make that leap wouldn’t be able to handle it too well,” receiver Tavarres King said.
But King and his teammates also agreed that a few special players like Lattimore don’t fit the average mold. One recent example was Georgia receiver A.J. Green.
“A.J. was ready out of the womb,” King said.
Running backs in particular take the greatest risk by waiting. There’s only a finite number of hits any running back can take in his career before the body breaks down, and it’s not a position with significant longevity in the NFL.
“A running back takes beatings every game,” Georgia defensive back Damian Swann said. “Taking three or four years of beatings before they get to the next level where it’s going to get worse is pretty hard on them.”
“That is a tough position to play,” King said. “You’re hitting somebody every single play. Maybe the rule should be a little skewed for running backs or guys who are banging every play.”
Here’s an idea – let the system decide whether a player is capable of being the next LeBron James or former GreenJacket Pablo Sandoval of the NFL. Turning professional as teenagers didn’t ruin James’ and Sandoval’s MVP/championship careers.
Unlike doctors or lawyers, playing football doesn’t require a college degree, as illustrated by the fact that many players in the NFL never completed their college degree requirements.
Shouldn’t South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins or Georgia running back Todd Gurley have the right to explore their chances to get paid now rather than later for their talents? Let the system decide if they’re ready and not some arbitrary and convenient deadline.
More than stipends for collegiate players, the NCAA could do what’s right for student-athletes by giving them more options to pursue their pro potential without penalty. Let kids be drafted, and if they don’t get picked or fail to make an NFL roster allow them to return as eligible athletes to their college teams to keep working on their education and that professional degree for which they’re all aspiring.
In short, be a real farm system instead of a phony one where everyone benefits except the athletes themselves.
So what if a few guys make a little money trying out for NFL teams before getting dumped back in the system if they didn’t make the pro cut? At least they would have had the chance to pursue their American dream like every other gifted adult in any chosen field.
Lattimore could do himself and every other college football player a favor by suing the NCAA and NFL and forcing them to change a rule that couldn’t possibly hold up in the courtroom.
He might not have been interested in turning pro so soon, but he and every other college player deserve to have the right to make that decision for themselves.