Commentary

Football signees should seize education

Updated: February 4, 2011, 2:05 PM ET
By LZ Granderson | ESPN.com

Do you wanna know what's really amazing about the Super Bowl?

Each year more than 1 million high school students play football, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. From that, only about one in 17 seniors will have the opportunity to play college ball. The chances any of those seniors, including the young men we saw on ESPN during National Signing Day, being drafted by an NFL team is only .08 percent.

[+] EnlargeMiami Names
AP Photo/Alan DiazIt's an annual ritual: Miami adds names to the depth chart as high school athletes sign.

That's what makes this game so incredible. The fact that any man who started as one of the million made it to the NFL is a bit of a miracle. And then to be so fortunate as to play in this game?

Maybe because fantasy football has shaven so much of our consciousness about the game down to stats, we forget about the human condition. Maybe because the Super Bowl happens every year, it's easy to forget just how tenuous a road each player on each team must journey to get there. It certainly is easy to forget the countless others who fell to the side before they even reached their senior year in high school or junior year of college. Playing football on a high level is so difficult to do that more than 99 percent of the high schoolers who play won't make it to the NFL, and that includes the high schoolers showboating on TV this week during National Signing Day.

I love the fact the young men soaked up their moment in the sun and swapped hats and held puppies. As the numbers suggest, to even be recruited by an FCS school is an amazing accomplishment and a testament to the players' hard work and dedication. They should celebrate because this is a tremendous opportunity.

I hope they take full advantage of these opportunities.

They need to take full advantage of these opportunities.

That's because while it's highly likely some of the signees will watch the Super Bowl this weekend and think: "That's going to be me someday," the numbers suggest it's not going to happen.

The average length of an NFL career is 3.3 years, according to the NFLPA, which means most of those happy-go-lucky teenagers we saw on television this week will not just be looking for work in about six years. They'll be looking to start a whole new career, and there are not a whole lot of job applications that ask for an applicant's 40-yard-dash time.

My hope for the new batch of talent coming in is the same as for the kids currently enrolled in school: go to class, be students, leave the institution better than the way they came. Those dudes we see being cut by the New York Jets or Cincinnati Bengals on HBO's "Hard Knocks?" That's not some faux reality-TV dramatic moment. Those dudes are jobless, and if football is the only thing they can do after three or four years of college, they're in trouble. If football is all many of these high school seniors can do when their eligibility runs out, they're in trouble.

[+] EnlargeLes Miles
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyCoach Les Miles will be teaching his new recruits the finer details of football this fall. Hopefully they'll get a similar education in the classroom.

I'm sure I wasn't the only one who noticed most of those young men on TV during National Signing Day were black. It's important to point out black men hold the highest unemployment rate in the country. And by highest, I mean nearly twice the national average, according to the Bureau of Labor statistics. So while I'm sure it's difficult for an 18-year-old black man who just signed a letter of intent on national television to imagine his life without football, it's going to be even more difficult living the life of an uneducated, unemployed 25-year-old black man who earned a full ride to college -- and blew it.

Not trying to crush anyone's dream. Just thought I'd remind everyone about reality.

Making it to the NFL, playing in the Super Bowl, those are all worthy goals for a kid who is being wooed by some of college football's biggest names. But getting a good education does not have to be a separate endeavor. As Muhammad Ali once said, "a man who views the world the same at 50 as he did at 20 has wasted thirty years of his life."

I don't care how goofy or egotistical the senior class appeared on TV during signing day because I know the upperclassmen will put them in check once they put on pads. I know coaches won't let some young snots challenge their authority, that the football staff will challenge their manhood and force them grow and develop on the field. What I don't know is who is going to make sure they take the "student" in student-athlete seriously. Who is going to make sure these young men don't just get good enough grades in interdisciplinary studies to stay on the team but readily challenge them to grow and evolve in class? Deep down inside I know the answer to that question is ultimately "them" ... I just hope the young guys know that or figure it out before their scholarships run out.

The University of Alabama is taking a little heat for streaming a live feed of a fax machine as athletes sent in their national letters of intent (which attractive young women grabbed when they arrived). I think it's funny people tune in to watch a fax machine. But that's where we are with our love of football in this country. And that level of fandemonium can't help but intoxicate a young kid heading to college to play ball.

And, yeah, making it to the NFL, playing in the Super Bowl, that is the ultimate dream. But I hope the new signees keep in mind that the fax machine at a school like Alabama is going to stay hot, whether they graduate or not. That die-hard fans will be as interested in future decisions as they were in those 2011 hat swaps. I hope these young men figure out that sacrificing their bodies and helping to make colleges millions without developing a career or earning an education would be the ultimate nightmare ... for them.

LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at lzgranderson@yahoo.com.

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Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine

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