Student-athletes face choice between degree, career

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In October 2012, Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones made headlines with a tweet.

“Why should we have to go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL,” he said, “we ain’t come to play SCHOOL classes are POINTLESS.”

The social media post added to the ongoing debate about the role of student-athletes and how long standouts should stay in college before going pro. Jones eventually reformed his views, earning his college degree in May, but it’s not uncommon to hear about players leaving college to go pro. At this year’s NFL draft, five players who were selected were only 20 years old.

While the lure of a sports career may be too much to stop some athletes from leaving college, a variety of programs are providing current and former student-athletes resources to help them get their degrees.

Mandy Chandler, associate director of Student-Athlete Support Services at Michigan State University, has seen a few players from MSU decide to forgo their senior year of eligibility to pursue professional sports.

Most recently, safety Montae Nicholson and defensive lineman Malik McDowell left Michigan State after their junior seasons to enter the 2017 NFL draft. Nicholson was selected by the Washington Redskins in the fourth round and McDowell was selected by Seattle Seahawks in the second round, becoming the highest-drafted defensive lineman under head coach Mark Dantonio.

Mandy Chandler working with a student-athlete at the Clara Bell-Smith Center.

Shane Jones

Mandy Chandler working with a student-athlete at the Clara Bell-Smith Center.

Chandler said academic advisers try to make sure student-athletes who leave before completing their degree know what it would take to finish their academic program.

“I know that Coach Dantonio will ask for an academic plan so that they can see how close they are to graduating and in the past there have been some who decide to go but there also some who decide to stay,” Chandler said.

Some players even come back and finish their remaining classes after they finish their professional careers.

“Some of those former players decide to come back to school here to finish,” she said. “They decide to live here for a year or a semester. It is good for the younger players to see a former player back here and finishing their degree.”

Young players may be attracted away from college by the lure of a big salary in the NFL. A rookie in 2017 would be guaranteed a minimum annual salary of $465,000. Rookies drafted in early rounds often negotiate contracts for much more money.

“Financial gain is probably the first reason depending on family situations, and also it is thought there is a better chance to be drafted as a junior,” said Darien Harris, a former MSU football captain who now is a graduate student. “Beyond that, not wanting to risk injury during their senior year, I think is another big one, because we know how football is and a career can end in an instant. So they are thinking go when you can to make the most of a very short career.”

Harris entered the pros in 2016 after completing his senior season. He signed with the Cincinnati Bengals as an undrafted free agent, but was later released from the team before the regular season began.

He’s since become an advocate for student-athletes to earn their degree and is working on a program to help athletes come back to college to finish their work.

“There are groups of players that simply do not like school or they came to school with a plan that, no matter what, after year three they were going to declare,” Harris said.

But there also are student-athletes who completed their years of eligibility and stayed in college longer to complete a degree.

Monty Madaris, a member of the 2013 Rose Bowl team, 2014 Cotton Bowl team, and 2015 College Football Playoff team, decided after the end of last season to come back to Michigan State and finish his degree in sociology.

“The reason I stayed to finish my degree was to become the person on my mom’s side of the family to earn a college degree, and to make my family, coach Dantonio, (wide receivers coach Terrence) Samuel and Elliot Daniels (associate athletic director for student-athlete engagement) proud,” Madaris said. “I also wanted to se set an example for my three siblings and the younger generation in my family.

“To graduate meant a chance to make my dreams come true and accomplish my goals that I have set for myself of becoming a young successful black man in America.”

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