By Jason Keidel
Leonard Fournette was just sucked into a vortex of hot topics and hot takes. The transcendent LSU running back is the newest face in an old debate: the right of an amateur athlete to decide when he becomes a professional.
Nick Wright, on Fox Sports 1, sparked the latest iteration of this argument, by arguing that Fournette, a guaranteed top-10 pick in the next NFL Draft, should sit out to retain his football and financial value. This spawned a debate with Barrett Sallee, who covers the Southeastern Conference for Bleacher Report. Sallee disagreed, citing his chats with Fournette and summoning the college spirit that compels Fournette to play his junior season for LSU.
There’s no clear path through the fog of subjectivity. But still, Wright is right. The system is corrupt and hypocritical, and serves everyone except the very players we cheer every Saturday and Sunday.
As Wright accurately asserted, if Fournette had taken $1,500 for an autograph, he would be banned for the season for violating NCAA rules, and would be the latest victim of a warped apparatus, cleared in our moral court.
But if Fournette decided not to play this season simply to protect his body, which is a multimillion-dollar property, he’s being absurdly selfish.
For his part, Fournette has done nothing to inflame the debate. He says he wants to play his junior season and bring a national championship to his native Louisiana. Fournette suffered through Hurricane Katrina and feels a deep bond with the bayou.
What else can he say? Anything other than esprit de corps would be branded blasphemous. But it’s not Fournette’s fault that the NFL wraps people of his immense talent in age restrictions. No pro prospect is allowed to enter the NFL until they are at least three years removed from high school. So says the Shield, the omnipotent arbiter of all things gridiron.
The NFL did not require this to protect the athlete. They did it to make college football a de facto farm system for the league. It works, and everyone wins, except the athlete. And if Fournette gets hurt on a sunny Saturday in October… oh well.
What do we care? As long as the brats are sizzling and the beer is chilling and the fans are shouting, we’re good.
But one would hope we have a little more empathy than that.
Some running backs can overcome gruesome injuries and enjoy long and lucrative NFL careers, like Willis McGahee and Frank Gore. Others can’t, like Marcus Lattimore.
But why must that be the litmus? Why put it on the 20-year-old to risk his blessed limbs and test his physical tolerance when the simple alternative is to lift that velvet rope into the NFL?
There is no glory as fleeting as football glory, with the average NFL career lasting about three years. For every Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, there are thousands of young men sweating in dank gyms for a chance to play for a practice squad.
Fournette is well beyond that. So he’s considered a member of some abstract aristocracy, part of that pro football orbit, even though he hasn’t made a dime running with a football.
And if Fournette shreds one of his knees while playing his last year for LSU, he will be wrapped in some solemn platitude. Tough luck. Them’s the breaks. We don’t lose millions when he gets hurt. Heck, he doesn’t, either. It is all potential, all play money on a board that doesn’t impact the media or the masses.
Barry Switzer says there’s only two high school players he’s ever seen whom he knew could suit up for Sundays — Earl Campbell and Marcus Dupree.
Campbell you know. He shredded NFL defenses for a decade and got his bust bronzed in Canton.
Dupree? Not so much. After a brief but dazzling career with Switzer and the Oklahoma Sooners, Dupree was ensnared in the web of eligibility rules, took his chances in the USFL, blew out his knee, and limped out of sight. Oh, he made a comeback, years later, with the Los Angeles Rams. But that only lasted a couple of unimpressive seasons.
Is Leonard Fournette the next Earl Campbell or the next Marcus Dupree? His chances hang on myriad things, none of which have to do with his ability to play football.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.