Canzano: Transfer game laced with misguided frustration
Blame players? Or coaches?
Nine years ago I received an email from a former University of Oregon football player who asked if I might print some thoughts he’d penned after dealing with an unhinged stripe of Ducks fans.
He wanted me to deliver a message to them.
“Go f**k yourselves,” he wrote.
The ex-player, who played in a BCS-era bowl game for Oregon, was invited to a football game at Autzen Stadium by a friend in 2013. It was the first time he’d been there as a spectator. He was excited to tailgate and cheer for his old team.
What he encountered instead were fans drinking and jeering at Oregon stars Marcus Mariota and De’Anthony Thomas. Some others, a few rows away, screamed toward the field and questioned the play calling of first-year head coach, Mark Helfrich.
The ex-player argued and debated with some of the fans seated around him. Nobody recognized him. This included a woman who directed her ire and profanity at the performance of players, then coaches and, finally, Pac-12 officials.
The former player vowed to never attend another game. When I printed the letter, it caused a stir. Fans debated whether poor stadium behavior happened everywhere (my vote: yes). But there was another part of his letter that I now find myself thinking about.
The ex-player wrote:
“I remember walking in from fall camp practice and talking to my teammates about how similar our lives were to the TV series Spartacus. We were slaves. We were paid enough to live, eat, and train... and nothing more. We went out on the field where we were broken down physically and mentally every day, only to wake up and do it again on the next. On the outside, spectators placed bets and objectified us. They put us on pedestals and worshipped us for a short time, but only as long as we were winning. In the end, we were just a bunch of dumbass (racial slur) for the owners to whip, and the rich to bet on.”
College football isn’t slavery. Nobody ripped football players from their homes, maimed and killed them. Nobody placed them into indentured servitude where they were forced to perform labor. College athletes are free to come and go. But I understand the ex-player’s point — he felt abused and used.
He’d made sacrifices.
He’d missed out on a normal college experience.
In the end, he didn’t walk away from college football with an NFL career and millions of dollars in income. He was left, instead, sitting in a corner-end zone seat surrounded by intoxicated, misbehaving fans who didn’t understand his plight.
There are 16,000 college football players currently at the FBS level. That’s nearly 128 per team. A lot is being made of the more than 1,000 players now in the transfer portal, seeking a new place to play.
In the last year, we’ve watched a host of booster-driven collectives pop up, designed to help athletes monetize their name-image-likeness. The combination of the portal and the NIL collectives sometimes makes major college football look like unrestricted free agency.
I recently wrote a column about former five-star quarterback JT Daniels, who was touring colleges last spring, looking for a new team. He’d already suited up at USC and Georgia. When Daniels showed up at Oregon State during spring practice, it became known that he was not only looking for playing time, but also a personal chef, a four-bedroom rental home and a six-figure endorsement as part of the deal.
Daniels eventually enrolled at West Virginia, where he played in 10 games this season. This week, he informed reporters that he plans to enter transfer portal and look for a fourth college. That news caused a stir.
Former University of Washington player, ex-coach and current Pac-12 Network analyst Nigel Burton saw it — and my previous column on Daniels — and tweeted: “Don't hate the playa. Hate the game.”
Daniels is free to do what he’d like. I’m not with those wringing their hands over the 1,000-plus college players exploring opportunities. I do admire players who stick it out, and see things through. I think they’re better for it. But the NCAA exploited football players for decades, making millions without players having freedom or compensation.
In 2022, if a player wants to transfer, should any of us be angry?
What we’re watching is a systemic correction. Players are taking advantage of a 45-day transfer window that opened on Monday. It may take a couple of years and some tweaks by the NCAA, but the market should eventually settle and find balance.
While we wait, listen to what ex-NFL quarterback Hugh Millen told me on Wednesday about the portal. Millen played his college ball at the University of Washington. He and his wife have two sons who currently play college football — Cale, now at Connecticut, and Clay, at Colorado State. Both are transfers.
Millen said on Wednesday that fans have a lack of awareness and are often quick to judge players who transfer. He doesn’t blame fans for being frustrated with the chaos, but hopes they’ll take a moment to understand how college coaches are leveraging and using the portal.
“Who drew first blood in the portal?” Millen asked. “The coaches did. But the players are getting all the criticism.”
Millen cited several examples of college coaches who changed jobs, cashed in, and did what was best for their careers. He also noted several college coaches who sold recruits on a path to playing time, then after getting a commitment, quietly dipped into the transfer portal.
“In the recruiting process they’re laying out a path to the field,” Millen said. “As soon as a guy signs, that path to the field changes. This is new. This is not what happened a generation ago. This is a new phenomenon.”
The former player who wrote to me was disenchanted by his experience. His biggest gripe wasn’t rooted in alcohol abuse by fans or the bickering. He was mostly bothered by how little the fans in the stadium seemed to understand about the game and the experience of the players they were criticizing.
He felt used and abused.
I don’t like the instability we currently have in college athletics. But I’m willing to live with it while the market settles. The players have been handed a new system. One, that coaches are already using to their advantage. Why should we blame a college football player for working it, too?
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