With this year’s NFL draft behind us, many will reflect on the journeys that the draftees took en route to a professional football career. Certainly one of the more unique situations of a highly ranked selection was that of Georgia running back Todd Gurley. The St. Louis Rams took Gurley 10th in the draft, making him just the 3rd running back take with a top ten pick in the last seven years. But this isn’t what makes Gurley’s arrival in the NFL so unusual.
The 2014 college football season couldn’t have started any better for Todd Gurley. After putting up 198 rushing yards and three touchdowns in an opening game demolition against Clemson, he went on to rush for over 100 yards in three of his next four games. Then, a curious thing happened. The NCAA suspended Gurley for four games after it was found out that he had received more than $3,000 in exchange for autographed memorabilia. This effectively ended his chances for winning the Heisman Trophy. But this too is not that terribly unusual in the landscape of college athletics.
What makes Gurley’s punishment and draft selection so unique is that the penalty he incurred probably helped him more than it hurt him. Five games into the 2014 season, when the NCAA penalty came down, Gurley had already established himself as arguably the best running back in the country. Sitting out for four games likely didn’t effect where a team would have selected him in the draft (and as mentioned previously, taking a running back with a top 10 pick is unusual these days anyway). In addition, not being able to perform on the field takes away the possibility of serious injury. After Gurley’s dominance was established and NFL teams were aware of his performance level, any further participation on his part (especially at a high risk position like running back) would have increased his chance for serious injury and may have cost him a few spots in the draft. When you’re talking about the draft, slipping a few picks can cost an athlete millions of dollars.
The ironic thing about this whole ordeal is that by punishing Gurley for profiting off of his talent at a place he was not able to do so, the NCAA may have made it easier for him to profit off that talent at a place where he is able to do so (the NFL). Competing in a violent sport after already establishing yourself as the best amateur at your position is a risky bet with little reward. So the NCAA’s suspension of Gurley actually came at a very opportune time. Now he will be receiving a contract befitting a top ten NFL pick (not to mention endorsement deals) and his four game suspension is something of a distant, inconsequential memory. The incompetence of the NCAA seems to be on full display as their attempt to penalize someone whose only crime was profiting off his name completely backfired.