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Early entry to professional sports ranks a high-stakes gamble
College athletes take risk to go or stay on campus
Published Wednesday, April 25, 2018 12:54 pm
by Jonah Lossiah, Media Hub

Former North Carolina linebacker Andre Smith, who missed most of the 2017 season with a knee injury, is hoping to catch on with an NFL club.

North Carolina junior middle linebacker Andre Smith lined up, heels on the 17-yard line. A sunny day September in Chapel Hill with the Louisville Cardinals in town. The second game of the season.

Smith took off in pursuit of Louisville tight end Micky Crum and tackled him along the right sideline.

“When I stepped over him, I just planted and twisted, and it wasn’t anything that looked crazy,” Smith said. “Three plays after that it just felt like a tight hamstring.”

Smith finished the game, but that fall cost him his season, and possibly more. He tore the meniscus in his left knee.

Before the season, Smith had one plan for the end of the year – go pro. Now his decision was up in the air.

Do I have enough film? Am I going to heal in time?

There’s a lot of reasons an athlete might leave school early. Maybe it’s a lifelong dream, or maybe his family needs the financial help. So much goes into the preparation of playing professionally. The universities have to do their best to support these athletes, and the player has to get ready for a whole new life.

Players leaving early for professional ball is not unprecedented at North Carolina. The football team has had a number of players leave early, including Mitchell Trubisky, Giovani Bernard and Elijah Hood, a Charlotte Catholic graduate. So has the men’s basketball team.

Ultimately, Smith still declared for the NFL draft, despite his stock falling significantly after his injury. He would have had two years of college eligibility left. With the draft just around the corner – it begins April 26 – Smith is in the final leg of preparation.

A person who has tried to give Smith some tips is Nazair Jones, a defensive tackle for the Tar Heels from 2014-2016. He left for the NFL after his junior year, and he quickly responded about his favorite aspect of playing professionally.

“The checks, for sure. Just having financial stability and being able to help out my family when needed,” Jones said. Jones was drafted in the fourth round of the 2016 NFL draft by the Seattle Seahawks on a $3.17 million contract.

Smith had to think of his future.

“I have some people on the inside that know scouts, and they told me there was a possibility I could still go undrafted,” Smith said. “But I still wanted to go through with it, because I was scared to come back and get hurt. I felt that coming back and getting hurt again would just ruin everything.”

Smith also said that he isn’t giving up on school.

“I’ve got to get that degree,” he said. “One thing I want to do is come back in January of 2019. I want to start next spring with online classes and I’ll be back during the summer to take some in-person too.”

This is not uncommon for football players who declare early, for they have to stay in college for at least three years and usually only have two semesters of work left. That’s something they can knock out in three or four summers, or even faster if they take classes in the spring.

A larger issue of the education of athletes comes with basketball. College basketball is in the midst of the ‘one-and-done’ era in which most top prospects only spend one year playing college ball.

“The biggest priority when a player declares is making sure they finish their academic work through the spring semester,” said Steve Kirschner, the sports information director for UNC basketball. “If they decide that they’re going to go, it’s important for them because you want them to have that year academically. But it’s very important also for the school.”

Each team’s grades are calculated together each year. The NBA draft isn’t until June this year, but players have to announce their decision to leave by April 22. If a player stops going to class and fails a course, it will damage those numbers.

Cricket Lane, UNC’s associate director for student-athlete development, is not a fan of players leaving significantly early.

“I want them to play pro, but I want them to come back and finish their degree,” Lane said. “That livelihood is short-lived, so you have to make sure you have a backup plan.

“Even if you leave early for the NFL or the NBA, you’re still trying to get a job. So we’re going to help them with interviewing, we’re going to make sure you have a resume and all those things.”

Basketball coach Roy Williams has connections in the NBA, and he uses them to gauge on how teams feel about his players. The team has models for how a player’s draft stock can increase or decrease in future seasons.

And then, again, there is the money. The minimum salary for an NBA rookie who is signed is $815,615. If the player is picked the first round, they are guaranteed a two-year contract.

The minimum rookie salary in the NFL is set at $480,000 for 2018.

The NFL Draft runs for three days. Smith plans to watch the first two in Chapel Hill with his teammates. They’ll all be waiting to hear the name MJ Stewart, a graduating cornerback from UNC who is projected to go as high as the second round.

“For me, I’ve seen fourth round as the highest and lowest I’ve seen is seventh,” said Smith. “Though some people say undrafted. It doesn’t really matter to me as long as I get my foot in the door.”

He will watch day three, the day he’s expected to be drafted, back home in Jacksonville. Sitting with his family and clutching his phone, he might not even hear his name called on April 28. But that’s a risk he’s willing to take.


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