NFL Draft: Our Obssession with Athletic Success over Education

Eric SamulskiCorrespondent IJanuary 11, 2012

Matt Barkley is just the latest prospect to be scrutinized for going back to school
Matt Barkley is just the latest prospect to be scrutinized for going back to schoolStephen Dunn/Getty Images

A 21-year-old kid comes up to you and tells you that he’s excited to go and get his degree.

How do you respond?

It seems like a pretty easy question. Except every January, when underclassmen are able to declare for the NFL draft.

Then, instantaneously, a commendable act becomes scrutinized and deliberated about as if it were part of a Health Care debate or the throwing mechanics of Tim Tebow.

I know the issue is more complicated than it may seem. I’m a former athlete and a college football fan. I happily pay attention to the scouting reports and All-Star games that lead up to the NFL draft. I understand the money these young men are set to make, and I understand the injury risk that faces them every second that they set foot on the field.

What I don’t understand is how year after year scouts, analysts and other draftniks can continue to pose the question: “Was this a good or bad decision?” when a guy decides to return to school.

When this occurs, the conversations turn from the strengths and weaknesses of a player’s athletic ability to the logic behind their decision to return to school. Just this year, analysts have referred to players' decisions as “poor,” “confusing," "ill-advised" or even “the wrong move.”

Since when did these individuals become experts on anything outside of football? And since when, as a society, did we start thinking it was okay to look the other way when people say that getting a college education is not important?

These are 21-year-olds who simply want to enjoy college, spend time with their friends and get a degree. Why should that be held under a microscope?

Isn’t that what most of us wanted from our college experience? Why do we hold collegiate athletes to another standard?

Why do we refuse to accept that they might look at their college experience the same as the rest of us? They have their whole lives to be professionals and earn a living under our scrutiny. Why aren’t they allowed to have one more year to be a student? To be a kid?

Why is it okay to tell an athlete he made a bad decision going back to get a degree when we would never say that to the average college junior?

A lot of it goes back to our society’s belief that professional athletes (or even those that compete on television) are in some way different from all of us. While that's a conversation for another time, we can at least start by addressing this phenomenon of telling kids that getting an education can, at any time, be the wrong decision.

Being in the business of projecting the NFL draft should never be synonymous with being in the business of questioning somebody’s desire to graduate or get an education.

However, every year the question gets asked, and it reflects a much larger problem that is facing young athletes nowadays. When we call into question their decision to graduate from college, we’re suggesting to the player, and younger players watching, that playing football might be more important.

We’re already a country that is struggling to produce enough quality professionals. Our work is being exported at an increasing rate, and our educational system continues to fall in international rankings. Yet, instead of trying to improve the education that our children are getting, we are highlighting all the things that they can do instead.

I know that many players use sports as a way to achieve a life that they would never otherwise be able to obtain. They use sports to free their family from poverty, subpar living conditions and dangerous communities.

I know that for some of them, educational struggles go beyond simple effort. But one thing that all these athletes have in common is that one day, their careers will end.   

One day, there will be no more fans, no more job and no more money. When that day comes, the question “did he make the right decision or not” is often met with an entirely different answer.

So maybe it's one that we shouldn't ask with such little care.