Question to A.J. Green: Was it worth it? Selling your jersey from a no-account bowl for a lousy grand and costing yourself one-third of what will surely be your final collegiate season?
Obvious answer: No. It’s too heavy a penalty for a picayune violation. But it remains incongruous how A.J. Green’s image can be used to promote games televised by networks paying millions of dollars for the broadcast rights and the player himself can’t bank a dime for selling his own shirt? (Even though UGA can sell a replica jersey bearing Green’s number, for which Green himself gets not one red cent.)
Fans being fans, they see only the greater (and reflected) glory of their beloved program. Whenever a player decides to leave school early, they brand him an ingrate and they wail, “Where’s the loyalty?” Right here’s your loyalty: Millions for the networks and the conferences and the athletic departments and the coaches and …
Tuition and room and board for the guys who do the heavy lifting.
Granted, a free college education is no trifle. Lots of kids pray every night for that opportunity. But let’s not be disingenuous. A big-time college football player’s immediate goal isn’t to get a degree in accounting and hunker down behind a desk at Price Waterhouse. He wants to play in the NFL, the place where Brady and T.O. and the Mannings play. The NFL’s where the money is, and it’s money without bylaws, money you don’t have to hide.
But so long as the NFL decrees that a player must remain an amateur until three years after his high school graduation, he has no real vocational alternative. He has to go to college and conduct himself like a college student, even if the nature of his special talent separates him from the average college student, who doesn’t fly on charter jets and who doesn’t have to study as hard in a film room as in a chemistry lab and who isn’t interviewed by Erin Andrews.
It’s the inherent disconnect of big-time collegiate sports: The biggest games are played by a bunch of guys who can’t wait to get out of college. If they could turn pro right away — straight out of high school, the way baseball players can — how many would agree to sit in class for three years?
This isn’t to excuse Green. He should have known better. He let down his teammates. (He admitted as much in a statement released Wednesday.) He shouldn’t have been hanging around anyone who could be construed as an agent, but it gets harder and harder to know exactly what an agent is. He took a risk not worth taking, and now, pending Georgia’s appeal, he’ll miss at least three games more, all of which the Bulldogs stand a chance to lose.
And if Georgia does lose while he’s sitting, some of those fans who were praying he’d be cleared by the NCAA will see him as the villain. But he’s not a villain. He’s a young man who made a mistake. He didn’t get himself arrested. He broke no law of Clarke County or Georgia or these United States. He flouted the NCAA’s little regulations and got docked for it. This is the same NCAA that continues to turn a blind eye to the excesses of the BCS. This same brave NCAA would much rather charge, net in hand, after a butterfly than confront a rogue elephant.
Not long after he was drafted No. 1 overall, I went to Cumming and watched Michael Vick do an unadorned autograph session in the back room of an antiques barn. I kept asking myself, “Why would a guy who stands to make millions spend a Saturday afternoon doing this?” And then it hit me: Because he could. Because the NCAA could no longer tell him what not to do. Because he could stick that money in his pocket and have to answer to no one.
We cannot absolve Adriel Jeremiah Green of responsibility. So far as we know, he wasn’t entrapped. But let’s take today’s news and file it away for that January day when he announces he’s leaving for the NFL. And let no one among us be so naive as to ask why.