Commentary

Declare for the draft! It's American!

Cam Newton, Nick Fairley and the other early entries are making perfect sense

Originally Published: January 17, 2011
By Jeff MacGregor | ESPN.com

I turned pro coming out of my sophomore year.

I was 19, and I left journalism school to take a job in journalism.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisBy turning pro, Cam Newton is following a uniquely American tradition.

So for Cam Newton to leave football school to take a job in football makes perfect sense to me.

A few quick thoughts this week about money and sanctimony and hypocrisy, about good Luck and bad Luck and retirement planning, about moral economics and ethical nonsense, about Pryor commitments and how to play Fairley, about the karma of dogma and the sorting of young Americans into shipping crates and gilded cages and futures great and small.

Cam Newton, a football player, declares for the NFL draft. Nick Fairley declares for the NFL draft. Terrelle Pryor does not. In fact, like something out of von Sacher-Masoch, Pryor promises he'll stay in school and serve a five-game NCAA suspension next season.

All of which coming and going is endlessly and breathlessly written, blogged and spoken of by our unstoppable zombie sporting press.

Andrew Luck launched weeks of dead-eyed moralizing and Socratic brain-chewing by staying in school, thus apparently violating the 11th Commandment, special American edition: Thou Shalt Leave No Money On The Table.

The equal and opposite knock on Newton being that he -- or at least his father -- has left nothing on the table at all. In fact, that some number of transactions has taken place under it. These we can specify as a corollary to Newton's Fifth Law Of Motion: That For Every Action, There's an Equal and Opposite Counteroffer From Another School.

Perfect moral and ethical contradictions thus abound among the legions of the media undead.

[+] EnlargeLady Gaga
AP Photo/Evan AgostiniLady Gaga dropped out of NYU to focus on her career, and she doesn't seem to be suffering for it.

All of which seems odd to me given our strange national relationship to higher learning. Because there is a deep and ancient strain of anti-intellectualism in America, a suspicion of learning only for learning's sake, of educational "elitism." For most Americans, a college education is therefore not an end in itself, but only a means to an end.

A means to a better job and to higher earnings.

That being the case, who's the real cynic here? And how can we squawk when a young American like Cam Newton simply skips ahead to the better job and the higher earnings?

Weirder still, it is an absolute sacrament of American folklore and literature that the hero quits school young to save his family. From the stories of Horatio Alger to the auditions for "American Idol," our national avatar is almost always a scrappy street kid on the make or a barely literate farm girl trying to turn one bushel into 20.

The list of Great Americans Who Did Not Finish School is a long and distinguished thing that runs from John Jacob Astor to Frank Zappa, and from Louis Armstrong to Lucille Ball to Mark Zuckerberg. Neither Bill Gates nor Steve Jobs, Frank Lloyd Wright nor Buckminster Fuller, James Cameron, Tom Hanks, Harrison Ford nor Lady Gaga finished college. Not Ring Lardner. Not William Faulkner. Not Tiger Woods or Thomas Edison or Ernest Hemingway.

It is part of the fireside American catechism that Abraham Lincoln did not much go to school.

But most of us are not touched by that divine spark. We are not geniuses. Nor do we have a sense of our true purpose. We go to school not so much to fill our minds as to find something in ourselves and find ourselves in something. We go to school to map ourselves into the world and into our own future. To find our way and find our work.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Luck
AP Photo/Lynne SladkyAndrew Luck will leave a small and immediate fortune on the table for the time being.

Sadly, in the current world economy, a general "baccalaureate" (from the 16th century French phrase meaning "keg stand") is no more valuable than a bus transfer. But maybe that's a good thing, too. Maybe we apprentice more young people to real trades; create more independent thought and entrepreneurship; send proportionately more young men and women back into the academy to learn just for the sake of learning.

Maybe.

The world as it was when I walked away from college is the world as it seems to me today. A fearful economy, uncertain and sour, casting shadows over everything and the horizon very far away, tipping into darkness.

I can tell you that I left school not for money or for honor -- because this business offered almost none of either then or now -- but because I felt it was my calling. It was simply where I fit, where I saw myself suited by temperament and ambition and opportunity.

It was both who I was and where I belonged.

Why would I think Cam Newton knows less about himself? Why would I doubt the sense or purity of his purpose?

Why would you?

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can e-mail him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com, or follow his Twitter.com feed @MacGregorESPN.

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