There is a reason why NCAA athletes are called student-athletes, not athlete-students. The student part comes first because that is (or should be) the primary reason for athletes to attend a high level university. Having an appropriate balance between academics and athletics is ESSENTIAL in achieving success in both fields. College is sometimes an important stepping stone for some athletes to continue on their journey to compete at the professional levels or it can be the final act before the curtain closes on a career. Either way, athletics will eventually come to an end. There’s no way around it. An athlete’s body cannot hold up forever (as much as we would like it to), the daily wear and tear is extremely demanding and takes a physical toll. Career ending injuries happen. Physical abilities diminish with age. Athletics will come to an end. Then what? Time to earn a living in some way other than on the playing field, and those opportunities are much easier to come by if you have completed your degree. The camaraderie that is established on a collegiate athletic team is something that is unparalleled. Going through four years with, essentially, the same people and working your butt off to reach a common goal every year can not be duplicated. The challenges of balancing academics, athletics, tutoring, community service, and some sort of social life are shared by the majority of student-athletes everywhere. Day in and day out you are in the gym or on the field pouring your blood, sweat, and tears into fighting to win a Championship. Whatever is best for the team is what you do. But, professional teams do that too, don’t they? Not exactly. On the professional level, money overrides much of the camaraderie that can be built on a team. Many pro athletes are easily disgruntled over a diminished salary, even if it is to make the team better. Many athletes will pick up, leave their teammates, and move to a different part of the country solely to receive more money. I understand the necessity for this at the professional level and I completely get that trades are necessary to keep professional teams running and successful; but in college, it is all about your team, the journey, and the end goal. Nobody is concerned with how much money they have coming in or how much their teammate is getting paid. Nobody gets “traded.” Nobody has their jersey being burned in another city because they chose to play for another team. You are playing not only for yourself, you are playing for your university, your fans, and your teammates. There is nothing like collegiate athletics. Having said this, I think it’s extremely important to finish your degree before continuing on to a professional sports career.
I also understand that staying in school and finishing a collegiate career could potentially provide a physical liability for an athlete’s professional career. What if a student-athlete decides to finish getting their degree before moving on to a professional career and gets hurt in the process? Either an acute or a chronic career-ending injury will have a timely effect on an athlete. What if the athlete’s performance level drops off during their remaining college play? There is a potential for projected success at a professional level to drop with a less than stellar NCAA season. With this, there are, of course, financial repercussions that go along with choosing to complete a collegiate career. The amount of money available or the amount of money a team is willing to play an athlete will fluctuate from year to year, and much of it depends on performance. The same opportunities are not available from year to year, and yes, the window to achieve a professional career is usually very small. But, I’m the kind of person that thinks if you work hard enough and it’s meant to be, it will be. For me, there really is no professional level to my sport… but if presented with the chance to either leave college early and pursue a pro career or stick around UCLA and try to win another championship with my teammates, get a degree, and be a “kid,” I am 99.9% sure that I would choose to stay.
So sports fans, you MAY have heard that the projected #1 NFL Draft Pick for 2011, Andrew Luck from Stanford, has decided to forgo the draft, stay at Stanford, get his degree, and try to win a national championship with the guys he came into school with. Halelujah! Luck and his classmates committed to attending Stanford and playing football when the Cardinal were in the absolute trenches of gridiron lore at 1-11. With the help of coach Jim Harbaugh, the 2011 senior class will have another shot at being the leaders who instrumented a national championship for Stanford. Even with an incredible 12-1 season and a dominating Orange Bowl win, it’s still not enough for Luck and his comrades. I don’t blame him. Luck has completed 64.4% of his passes, thrown for 5,913 yards, 45 touchdowns, and only 12 interceptions in his sparkling career. He has also rushed for 807 yards and 5 touchdowns himself. That athleticism, poise, and confidence have had NFL scouts frothing at the mouth for months and the Stanford fans screaming with joy for the past three years. Well, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and Happy Thanksgiving to the Card. Ya’ll have your main man for another year. I didn’t think it was possible, but Andrew Luck has made the Stanford Cardinal and their faithful followers love him even more.
Tough “Luck” for the Carolina Panthers though, who would have most likely obtained Luck in the 2011 draft. (But, if I’m Luck I would want to stay in sunny California rather than snowy Carolina, anyways!) Cynics are quick to point out that USC’s Matt Leinart lost millions of dollars when bypassing his chance at being the #1 overall pick, but to each his own. And hey, since he was this year’s Heisman Trophy runner-up… there should be no deliberation who will be the front-runner next year. Option A: Stay in California and probably win a Heisman trophy. Or Option B: Freeze your butt off in Carolina and get pummeled all season. I think I would go with A too, Andrew. Thank you so much for defining the term “student-athlete” and standing by what you really want to do. I respect you more than you can imagine. But please, oh please… don’t burn the Bruins 35-0 again next year.