Trevor Lawrence might finally be the NCAA’s undoing.
The freshman has already led Clemson to one national title and is likely to add one or two more before he’s done. He’ll give the Tigers an untold amount of positive PR, to say nothing of the actual millions he’ll generate for the school, coach Dabo Swinney and his staff, the SEC, and, of course the NCAA.
And Lawrence won’t get a dime.
Yes, he’s getting a free education – no small thing given that the tab for out-of-state students at Clemson is about $50,000 per year. But multiply that by four, throw in another $100,000 or so to cover the costs of coaching, training and medical care, and it’s still peanuts compared to what Clemson gets in return.
More: A star is born: Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence takes center stage as football’s next big thing
More: Early Top 25 college football teams for 2019: Alabama, Clemson again top the list
The drumbeat for college athletes getting paid in some fashion has gotten louder in recent years, and it’s about to become a roar with Lawrence. For the next three years, every game Clemson plays, every spectacular play Lawrence makes will be a reminder that while the adults in the NCAA system are getting rich, the kids who make it all possible are not.
Even those who recoil at the idea of paying college athletes are going to be very uncomfortable at the idea of Swinney getting $6 million-plus a year while his telegenic quarterback can’t even get royalties from the No. 19 jerseys that will become a staple in the wardrobe of every Tigers fan.
This isn’t an argument for the NFL to open its doors to underclassmen. That’s a non-starter, and the courts have shown no inclination to force the NFL to change its rule.
Besides, unlike the NBA or Major League Baseball, there are physiological reasons for players to stay in college through their junior year. Most, Lawrence included, simply aren’t big or strong enough yet to contend with the day-in, day-out physicality of the NFL.
But that’s not an excuse for the NCAA and its member institutions to take advantage of the “student-athletes.” Which is exactly what they are doing.
Swinney got a $250,000 bonus for winning Monday night’s title game, bringing his total for the season to $875,000. In the past three years alone, he’s earned $2.9 million in bonuses. His players have gotten souvenir T-shirts and bowl swag that, if they’re lucky, includes some gift cards and electronics.
The Alabama players did get personalized bobble heads at the Orange Bowl, according to Sports Business Daily. But god forbid any of them put theirs on Ebay to try and make a couple of bucks.
The inequity in the current NCAA system has always been glaring, but Lawrence is going to make it impossible to ignore. Whether he wants to leave Clemson early or not is irrelevant. As the quarterback, he’s both the force and the face of the Tigers, and there must be a way to reflect that worth financially.
This isn’t hard to do, either. Allow players to profit off their names, images and likenesses. Give players an annuity, based on the number of years they play, and allow them to collect it when they’re, say, 30. Make their scholarships open-ended so they can go to graduate school – or get a degree they might actually use.
These are just a few of the ideas that have been thrown out, and roundly rejected by the NCAA. But either it gets with the times or some judge is going to do it for them.
The so-called purists will howl about amateurism and destroying the wholesome environment of college athletics. Please. Those days went out the window when bowl games began selling naming rights and schools started building athletic facilities that rival the Taj Mahal.
College athletics is a business, and a big one at that. It’s time the players get a piece of the pie.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.