If the Los Angeles Chargers locker room at the StubHub Center was stripped of the conspicuous branding on the walls, you might confuse it for the dressing area of a small university. Maybe even the modest digs on Netflix's Last Chance U.
The narrow metal lockers, cramped aisleways and name tags that can be peeled off with a minimal amount of effort don't feel like the typical state-of-the-art NFL accommodations. There are sardines and cocktail wieners in the world that are more comfortable. Make no mistake about it, though: This is the NFL.
The players aren't cashing million-dollar checks in college, and in the NFL players don't have to get up at 8 a.m. to study for their biology midterm. UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen highlighted the grind the average student-athlete has to go through every day in an interview with Bleacher Report last week, but current Chargers QB and former Ohio State star Cardale Jones beat him to that conclusion in 2012.
Then, as now, Jones was a signal-caller scratching and clawing for a place on the field. While trying to prove himself at one of the biggest schools in college athletics, he tweeted "Why should we have to go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL, we ain't come to play SCHOOL, classes are POINTLESS."
Jones made quite an about-face on the issue, though, finishing his degree this past spring. He even tweeted at Rosen, telling him, "Chill bro, play school." In this tiny locker room—not befitting the rarefied status of the men who use it—Jones now sings the praises of school.
"I read the article, but I didn't get that he was saying school is not as important as the game," Jones told B/R after a 48-17 drubbing at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks last Sunday. "I got the complete opposite. He hit on a lot of points that a lot of players agree with. It's just hard to be a student-athlete and prioritize your athletic career and your academic career."
Prioritizing is something we do as adults every day. Work versus family. Happiness versus responsibility. Binge-watching Game of Thrones versus folding your laundry. Everything we do is a choice to not do something else. For the college player, that choice is near impossible to make, because everything matters.
The cheers for Cardale Jones' winning a national championship far outnumbered those for him going back to Ohio State to finish his degree. The salary he'd receive as a professional NFL player is likely higher than one he'd get as a professional outside of the sport.
Every college athlete with an ounce of ambition knows that. It's why the NBA draft is increasingly filled with one-and-done players hoping to cash in on their talent as soon as possible. It's why NFL players are so hesitant to strike to demand a larger slice of the financial pie, as Richard Sherman pointed out last month.
College athletics is supposed to get you ready. Not just for the rigors of professional sports, but for those of professional life in general. For the interminable grind of paying bills, keeping steady employment and making something out of yourself after the playing days are over.
But what we ask of our young athletes in the modern age goes even beyond that, which is apparent in every early-morning film session, two-a-day, lecture, lesson, weight lifting session and pep-rally school-spirit midnight extravaganza they attend. It's, as Rosen said in his interview, two full-time jobs. We put our amateur athletes through so much that it's hard to even call what they do "amateur."
Multimillion-dollar economies—such as the food and beverage and retail industries, for example—live and die on the performance of our student-athletes. Wealthy boosters demand success on the field or on the court, yet we expect athletes to find the time to study textbooks in addition to playbooks.
Many college football players dream of making it to an NFL locker room like Jones has. When people speak out on the extraordinary demands we place on college athletes, like Jones did back in 2012, the response is often harsh.
Jones retracted his initial tweet in 2015, calling his words "stupid," after a swift backlash. That should be expected from young men and women learning and growing in the spotlight. The blunt honesty of an 18-year-old isn't the same as the measured, guarded take of an adult with aspirations of NFL glory.
Today, Jones is firm that education comes first and sports is secondary. "[Education is] going to take you places football can't," he told B/R. It certainly is for the athlete, especially the ones who might not be superstars, but is it for us as fans? Is it for the billionaires who run our professional sports leagues?
It doesn't seem like it.
When asked how a young athlete can better navigate the dual pressures of school and sport, Jones said he isn't sure. The student-athlete isn't usually the one making the decisions. "The kids aren't saying, 'I gotta spend 40 hours on this and 30 hours on that.'"
In the end, that's what they are. They're kids, no matter how remarkable their physical feats are or how often they show up on television. Instead, Jones puts the responsibility on the true shot-callers: the owners, the superstar players and the athletic directors.
"I think it's gotta come down to people who make 10 times as much money as I do to make a decision to help student-athletes balance not just their academic career but athletic career and their social life as well."
As it stands now, big-time universities are minor leagues and feeder systems for leagues like the NFL that reap the benefits of our collective thirst for sports. Lost along the way is the necessity for knowledge and the preeminence of a college degree in the real world.
We preach it, but we don't practice it, which is why the resentment and frustration of college athletes keeps bubbling to the surface.
No one can say for sure whether Cardale Jones—who struggled in the second half of the Seahawks game, going 2-of-9 for 50 yards—will receive his last snap a decade from now or in his next game, but at least he has his degree, in African-American and African Studies.
Cardale Jones played school, and he won.