Everett Golson and the role of academics in NCAA football

The news came out late last week that an elite athlete can’t participate in his sport for a year. That’s hardly uncommon: heck, it even happened more than once last week alone, as CFL draft pick Kris Robertson announced he’ll miss this season thanks to a torn ACL. Things tend to get weirder and more unusual when you’re talking about NCAA sports, though, and that’s what makes the case of Everett Golson stand out.

Golson, the impressive sophomore quarterback who helped Notre Dame get to the national championship game last season, confirmed Sunday that he won’t be playing for the Irish this fall. The reason? It’s not an injury, or anything even vaguely related to football. It’s what Golson called “poor academic judgment” that’s led to him being suspended by the university for the fall 2013 term. Essentially, a player who’s likely aspiring to be a professional can’t work towards that because of something that happened in a classroom. That’s not uncommon in the world of the NCAA, and thus it doesn’t turn many heads, but the foundational premise here carries significant questions. Why, exactly, should a player have to do academic work at a college or university in order to play professional football?

There are plenty of great things about a post-secondary education, but it’s hardly something that dictates if a player is able to perform on a football field. However, at the moment, it’s almost a requirement. The NCAA is by and large the chief path to the NFL, so aspiring professional football players mostly have to go suit up for an American college to get looked at by NFL scouts. That’s not all bad, of course: well-rounded people are to be admired, and many football players have spoken about how their education has helped them on and off the field, so it’s not that a university education is a terrible curse in its own right.

It’s also not that players are required to study highly abstract or complicated subjects; heck, even graduate degrees such as Jeremiah Masoli’s famed study of “Parks and Recreation Management” at Ole Miss have been questioned as to just how academic the coursework really is (the guess here is it’s literally no CTMTS), and plenty of undergraduate football players have been known for taking less-than-academically-rigorous courses (the University of North Carolina’s recent academic scandal, in which football played a key role, is a good example of this). If we can admit that a lot of the educational aspect around college football is a joke, though, isn’t the next logical move to question why education must be tied up with football?

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That’s not to call for the destruction of the college football system. By and large, it offers a lot of good: it’s a thrilling game, one played at an exceptionally high level, and one that works quite well for a lot of the top prospects involved. It gives students and alumni of schools something to unite around, and it makes money that can help support other athletic programs and the schools themselves. College football as a system does have significant problems, and the questions about how long players should have to stay in school and if they should be paid┬ádeserve their own thorough discussions. However, when it’s all said and done, there isn’t a problem with college football being a system or even the primary system that gets players to the pros. The problem arises when it’s essentially the only system.

That’s the case in the U.S. at the moment. Yes, some players have come in from other leagues, including Canada’s CIS, but playing at a Canadian university doesn’t exactly disassociate the educational aspect from the game. There are a few semi-pro and pro American leagues out there that aren’t tied to colleges, but they’re far enough off the radar that they’re not exactly a path to the NFL. Heck, even lots of impressive NCAA players wind up trying to crack less prominent leagues like the CFL when they’re overlooked by American scouts. It’s hard for players from even Division I FCS schools┬áto get NFL attention, and it gets progressively harder for those from Division II or Division III. If it’s difficult for those levels to get a player on the radar, it’s much more difficult for those trying U.S. football options that aren’t tied to schools.

Curiously enough, Canada may provide a couple of possible answers to the problem here. On one front, there’s the aforementioned CFL, and it’s proven a place for some players not yet eligible for the NFL draft to ply their trade professionally. Most obviously still choose the higher-profile NCAA, but for those who run into academic issues, spending time as a pro in Canada can look like an appealing option. That happened with receiver Terence Jeffers-Harris, who came north following academic eligibility issues at Vanderbilt and played with Winnipeg before he became eligible for the 2011 NFL draft. Jeffers-Harris wasn’t selected there, and has since bounced from Winnipeg to Hamilton to Saskatchewan to Calgary, so the NFL may not have been a realistic option for him; however, his career path is one that might work out well for others.

A case in point is Armond Armstead, who went from USC to the CFL and recently signed with the New England Patriots. Armstead didn’t play in his senior year at USC thanks to a dispute with the Trojans’ medical staff that’s resulted in an ongoing lawsuit, and he was passed over in the NFL draft, but shone in Canada and got himself back on the NFL radar. The CFL isn’t a great option for Golson, as it’s next to impossible to engineer a quick CFL-to-NFL turnaround at quarterback (take heed, Tim Tebow) but it might provide an interesting option for others who have fallings-out with the NCAA. It’s a prominent and high-calibre enough league that it can be a viable path to the NFL.

From a systematic perspective, though, there’s another answer worth considering to be found up north. The CFL’s Canadian players are brought in through a draft, and that draft has three primary sources: NCAA schools, CIS schools and junior football. CIS football works under the same general student-athlete principle as the NCAA, with perhaps even a greater focus on academics, but junior football is deliberately disassociated from schools, and it’s become a high-enough level of competition that more and more players are making it to the CFL that way. It wouldn’t be easy to get an existing U.S. non-school football circuit up to a level where it could be a viable NCAA alternative, but the idea’s worth considering. After all, having multiple developmental options (junior and NCAA, plus European leagues) works just fine for the NHL, and while junior hockey has issues of its own, it at least is a step away from the idea that you have to be a college student in order to become a professional athlete.

The goal isn’t to eliminate the college football model, but merely to propose alternative developmental options that don’t require athletes to be students. However, the idea of the student-athlete has become so thoroughly engrained in U.S. football culture that it will be difficult to shake. “Academic issues” are discussed throughout players’ recruitment and long after they’ve already made the team, and situations like Golson’s happen reasonably frequently. However, it may be worth shifting the discussion from “Why couldn’t Golson keep his academics in order?” to “Why are academics required for football players?” That’s a debate that’s well worth having, and it’s one that could potentially change the American football landscape.

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