Andrew Luck's choice? Good business
There is more to his decision to return to Stanford than a shot at the Heisman and a title
I love the Andrew Luck story, but let's not confuse romance with business. They're both at work here, and they are quite likely operating on parallel paths.
Yes, Luck is a different breed of college superstar. The son of a former NFL quarterback and businessman-turned-college athletics administrator, Luck has grown up in a comfortable lifestyle, absent the sort of cash-the-check mentality that by necessity informs the decisions of so many underclassmen who wind up going pro. He doesn't have to have the money.
That's certainly no knock on Andrew Luck. He has come across in his interviews as the person his friends and teammates know him to be: affable, self-deprecating, earnest, and basically happy. No one ought to have the slightest problem believing that Luck is glad about his decision to stay at Stanford for another year. Why wouldn't he be?
Whether or not Jim Harbaugh returns as coach -- and reports Friday afternoon indicate he won't -- the Cardinal are looking at another strong year in 2011. Luck is going to get his degree in architectural design -- from Stanford. He's going to hang out with his friends and play with his fourth-year teammates, Harbaugh's first recruiting class on the Farm.
And after speaking with Peyton Manning and Sam Bradford, among others, Luck will do all this in the knowledge that an extra year at college is not necessarily an NFL death knell for an aspiring top draft pick. In fact, it can turn out bloody well. As Bradford's case dramatically underscores, even a college injury is no longer the kind of draft-killer it used to be.
But before we spend too much time turning Luck's decision into an affirmation of everything that is true and good about college sports, let's dip a toe into ye olde bucket of reality rainwater, shall we?
First, Andrew Luck is no fool. His dad, Oliver, is practically an industry lifer, having gone from an abbreviated NFL career to leading business development for the league and running NFL Europe. From there, Oliver Luck oversaw the development of more than $1 billion worth of sports and entertainment venues in the Houston area. He hasn't ever been out of the loop.
So we may fairly assume that when it comes to the potential of an NFL lockout this spring or summer, Andrew Luck is all caught up as to what the fallout might be. Considering that player reps have been telling current NFL players to bank their last few games' worth of paychecks in order to survive the long freeze, it is no leap to imagine that lockout as a protracted one.
And surely Luck has been advised, by his father and others close to the situation, that getting drafted by the team with the worst record in the NFL, and then being placed in immediate dry dock while the league goes into a prolonged and nasty negotiation, is about the worst road to a successful pro career that anyone could traverse.
It actually makes more football sense for Luck to stay in the college game and duck the NFL's labor mess for a year. That's not nostalgic, and it has nothing to do with the magnificent tree-lined visage of the Stanford campus, or the way the stadium smells on a football Saturday, or any of the very nice images that Oliver Luck conjured Thursday in explaining his son's decision to forgo the draft. (Andrew, true to character, issued a one-sentence statement through the university and left it at that.) It's just plain football calculus.
Financially, of course, Luck is running the risk that some drastic new rookie wage scale will forever incinerate the kind of mega-deal that Bradford got with the Rams, and will reduce future No. 1 picks to comparatively paltry contracts. Maybe. But again, Luck is being counseled by a father who knows the league and its moving parts very, very well.
The hunch here is that Oliver Luck told his son the truth: It is far from a foregone conclusion that NFL owners will successfully put a choke-collar around the rookie salary structure. (If that report of ESPN's new whopper contract with the NFL for "Monday Night Football" rights is true, the league isn't exactly on the verge of bankruptcy.) Beyond that, the top picks are still going to get wildly rich -- not rich to the tune of a $50 million guarantee, perhaps, but wildly rich all the same.
So Andrew Luck is returning to Stanford; and yes, it makes for some wonderful anecdotes about the college life. It's also a great thing for NCAA football. But on top of all of it, this is a move that keeps Luck in the game at a time when the NFL can offer no such assurance. That, ultimately, is good business.
Mark Kreidler is a longtime contributor to ESPN.com. His work, "Six Good Innings," was named one of the Top 10 Sports Books of 2009 by Booklist. His next book, "The Voodoo Wave," will be released in August 2011 by W.W. Norton. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.