If you finish your second year of college football as the consensus No. 1 draft pick, what's left to accomplish? The team stuff sounds good to the fans and boosters and anybody who wishes to be in his position, but it sidesteps an inconvenient fact: Players as good as South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney are biding their time in college, waiting to get paid.
Nobody wants to hear this. Nobody wants to believe a game that means so much to them doesn't mean quite as much to the guys -- or at least one of them -- on the field. It sounds like a moral failing to acknowledge that he made his money last year, and this year is really about protecting the status he gained. It diminishes the importance of college football to state the obvious: The only thing he can do this year is hurt himself, whether it's physically, financially or both.
It's an unsavory part of the equation. If you insist on a system that forces players to stay in school for three years and provides them with minimal incentive while they're on campus, you can't complain when one of the few players who actually has leverage decides to use it.
Clowney didn't play against Kentucky on Saturday, and it looks suspiciously like a calculated act of self-preservation. Steve Spurrier expected Clowney to play despite a minor (or nonexistent) rib injury. Judging by Spurrier's words, normal medical protocol wasn't followed, and Clowney comes out of it looking like someone who would rather not be playing college football, which is -- much as we might not like it -- precisely the point.
The calculus isn't difficult. Clowney is banking (literally) on the idea that he's good enough that NFL teams won't hold it against him. He's probably right. USA Today quoted a couple of unnamed NFL executives who said exactly that. He'll go through all the intrusive psychological testing and be deemed mentally fit to rush the passer at the highest level.
So what's the answer? Definitely not the one he seems to have chosen. From the moment practice started this year and Clowney sat out with an alleged shoulder injury, he has stumbled along leaving a vapor trail of question marks. It's difficult to climb in his head, but maybe he has decided to pick his spots, play hard against Florida and Clemson but shut it down against Kentucky (which almost cost them the game) and Coastal Carolina. Become a Saturday afternoon mercenary. The approach is not without peril; there's no scientific proof to back it up, but a lot of guys who wear whistles for a living believe obsessing on injuries increases the likelihood of getting one. It's the ACL Rules of Attraction, I guess.
As Spurrier said, "If he doesn't want to play, he doesn't have to."
It's a terrible look. No question. If Clowney is refusing to play, he's cheating a lot of people -- the people who pay to watch him play, his coaches, his teammates, South Carolina donors. Essentially, he's cheating everyone involved in the school.
The reason he shouldn't be cheating them goes beyond character and draft stock. He shouldn't be cheating them because he shouldn't be there in the first place. He should be playing on Sunday, not Saturday, but an artificial construct created by people who stand to profit from his talent has dictated the situation. Clowney, who watched teammate Marcus Lattimore shred his knee last year and lose a small fortune because of it, isn't handling it with much dignity, but it's not hard to see where he's coming from.
And really, it's not a new story, more like an exaggerated version of an old one. A college coach told me the story of a highly rated wide receiver from several years ago who sat out his last college game for no discernible reason, other than a fear of an injury that could jeopardize his draft position. His coaches covered for him and his absence was reported as an injury. ("Out: fear of injury" wouldn't look too good on the game notes.) The player ended up being a first-round pick and has had a good NFL career.
USC's Marqise Lee suffered a knee sprain against Arizona State. He's getting better and off crutches, but don't be surprised if he makes triple sure he's healthy before playing again. What's on the line? Another Sun Bowl appearance versus protecting his status as a top-10 pick? Anyone who has watched him this year, especially in a loss to Washington State, can be forgiven for seeing the wideout version of Clowney.
Remember when the idea was floated that Clowney might not play this year? That he'd be better off spending his mandatory third year in college working out and saving his body for the NFL? He laughed at the idea at the time. It might not seem so funny now. In fact, it might turn out to be the lesser of two evils.