By the time I was in my early teens, the reality was only beginning to surface. The tongue-and-cheek comment about certain players was not that they were graduating after their senior year, but that they were running out of eligibility (in that, they didn't have the credits to get the degree, but could no longer play basketball, so why stick around?).
Today, it's unheard of for even a good (let alone all-star) college athlete to graduate. Which is why the announcement from Andrew Luck this week is so darn interesting and laudable. Luck is the star quarterback of the Stanford Cardinal. He came in second in voting this year for what is essentially college football's MVP award, the Heisman Trophy. He led his team to a victory in a major, major bowl game last week, as Stanford dismantled Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl. He is the consensus first pick in the upcoming NFL draft, and the team who owns that pick, the Carolina Panthers, is eager to slot Luck into its beleaguered offense.
There's just one problem. Luck doesn't want to leave Stanford. He's only a junior, and-- I hope you are sitting down for this one-- he wants to graduate.
When Stanford announced Luck's intentions this week, they did so via a statement and did not make the college student available to talk to the media. As a PR person, I can tell you the only reason to make news this way is to avoid challenging questions. Luck's decision was a personal one that is technically no one else's business, so he doesn't have to answer questions anyway.
And the question he would have gotten this week is one that drives to the root of the word "success" in the United States: "Why are you leaving the possibility of more money you could spend in a lifetime on the table to play for nothing in the college ranks?"
Talk show hosts were mystified by Luck's decision. My brother Mark sent me an email yesterday and paraphrased Jerry Callahan on WEEI talk radio in Boston, who said of the move: "I've never had so much respect for someone who is such an idiot." According to Mark, Callahan went on to say that finishing one's degree is laudable, but leaving "50 million" dollars on the table is foolish.
So this is where athletics have come to in this country. You are foolish to not follow the money even if what will make you happy is not taking it. Money trumps happiness. Greed is good.
I have similar feelings every time I listen to the pundits when discussing the decision making of a major league player or coach whose contract is up and they are able to bargain for new terms among the teams across the entire major leagues. If a player is only offered three million a year, let's say, when they are worth much more, accepting the small deal "is an insult." Well, I don't know about you, but I could live off of three million a year just fine. And if it meant staying in a city or neighborhood I loved, or keeping the infinite number of other circumstances (school, family, weather, boss, etc.) that make me happy in the job and in the location I have, then turning down the larger offer is certainly not "foolish."
The players fall for the money trap all the time, and I don't blame them. They get caught up in the name calling we hear on talk radio and they hear, no doubt, from their agents, who are motivated to sign the largest deal since it means more money in their own pockets. I challenge players to think about what makes them happy, or what's consistent with their goals, when making contract decisions. I have never made a million dollars a year, but I would imagine that once you get above a million, the multiples don't necessarily make life easier to live. As my great college professor and mentor Dr. John Schultz used to say, "Money is a means to an end, but it is not the end."
For Andrew Luck, the NFL would not make him happy, at least not now when in one more year he can be a Stanford graduate and degree holder. I just don't understand why that move on his part is so shocking to so many people, or causes so many to think Luck foolish. As his father, himself a former NFL quarterback put it, "The NFL will be around in a year. It's not going anywhere." Thank heavens both Andrew and his dad are smart enough to realize that.