This is one of those pieces you write after thinking too much about a topic. In the moments after Jaylon Smith’s knee injury, speculation turned, a little sickeningly, to whether or not his injury meant he would “come back.” Leading up to the Fiesta Bowl, Jaylon was a lock to go in the first round of the NFL Draft. But, as a junior, to do so, he would have to “leave early.”
“Leaving early,” when applied to the student-athlete, means “to leave without a degree.” While plenty of Notre Dame players have left with a year, or two, of eligibility on the table, few Irish players have left before graduating. In fact, since 1990, when the NFL permitted the practice, eleven Irish (Tuitt, Niklas, Atkinson, Rudolph, Clausen, Tate, Walker, Taylor, Bettis, Carter, Ismail) have left for the league before they earned their degree. Some, like Jimmy Clausen, eventually got it. Some, like Bobby Taylor, have not.
When Coach Kelly “lost” Tuitt, Niklas, and GAIII, he came out firing on the next, 2014, recruiting class. “When we were having this opportunity to recruit a young man, they had to have a passion for wanting to get a degree from Notre Dame and winning a national championship,” he said. “If they want to come here just to hang their hat to play football and go to the NFL, we passed on some pretty good players because I don’t want guys to come here and not finish their degree. I want guys to come to Notre Dame, get their degree, help us win a national championship and be the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. That’s what I want, if that’s what they want.”
But does it have to be in four years?
Under the NFL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement, rookie salaries were made a lot simpler, and less expensive. Owners wanted that to save a buck, while the league’s veterans wanted more money available to pay them. So, in 2011, the rules changed. They provide, now, for a Rookie Compensation Pool that limits the total amount to be paid to all rookies. This means that the earlier the pick, the more money is available to a team to pay a rookie in the first year of his contract and over the life of the four year maximum term. The league also has a rule that forbids rookie contracts from increasing pay more than twenty-five percent (25%) from one year to the next. This places a premium on bonuses for early-rounders. Then, there is the option available to only first-round picks: an optional fifth year. “Lesser” players can only get “proven performance escalators” if they meet certain benchmarks.
The gap between first- and second-round compensation is significant-, and real-, enough that players purchase insurance against it. “Loss-of-value” insurance theoretically insurers a player whose draft-stock is reduced from the first-round to the second-round via injury. Whether, for example, Jaylon Smith would fall from a projected top-five pick all the way to the second-round seems unlikely, but the status of his injury is too unknown to make a guess, really.
Since the difference between one’s draft position can mean several millions of dollars, can we do anything but support the student-athlete who chooses to go? Consider that in 2011, 76 Notre Dame undergrads chose, for a variety of reasons, to graduate in January. For some, it was a question of an additional semester and twenty-five thousand dollars of student debt. For others, well, it was personal.
While I was unable to find any statistics on how many students take a leave of absence from Notre Dame, the University allows students to do so for up to two semesters for certain purposes. What do we make of these students who leave?
If he were my child, my son, I’d tell him to go. The fact of the matter is that the NFL provides a career opportunity completely outside the realm of non-athletic professions. It’s a close equivalent of a Supreme Court clerkship being offered to a 2L, but the money is just so incredible and the potential that it could last for a decade or more is real. Players like Jimmy Clausen, incidentally the last player to “leave early” and ultimately get his degree, show that the decision to leave early is not a degree-killer.