Risk Analysis

The Jameson Williams injury is exhibit A on why NFL prospects shouldn't play bowl games

January 12, 2022

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Sources out of Alabama are indicating that Jameson Williams, Alabama's star receiver, suffered a torn ACL in Monday night's championship game against Georgia. This is not the athletic death sentence it used to be; the ESPN story has doctors who swear he'll regain his ridiculous speed, and maybe—maybe—it won't even affect his draft status. That said, he's considered the best receiving prospect in the draft and was comfortably set to go in the top ten overall, and any hit to that is a really big deal for his financial future. This is a major injury (trust me, I tore mine three years ago), even if modern medicine has made leaps and bounds, and there's every chance that teams who were enthusiastic five days ago are now feeling a lot more hesitant to blow a top pick on a guy who may or may not ever rise to his former level.

Which raises the inevitable question: why was Jameson Williams even playing?

There are some reasonable answers here, of course. First, his team had a chance to win a championship. Second, he probably feels some sense of responsibility to his teammates, and maybe his coaches too, and the fans and his school and whatever. Technically speaking, the opportunity he had to play in the NFL and become very rich existed because of Alabama, and it's not crazy, at least on the surface, to say there's a debt there.

And yet...what I can't shake is the fact that for all of Williams' skill, he never made a red cent. That's all about to change in major college sports, at long last, but Williams happens to exist on the tail end of an era where people like him were used for their talent, exploited while universities and coaches and television companies made millions of dollars, and compensated in return only with a promise of future earnings. We don't need to go too deeply into this, because the argument is well-worn, but Williams was an indentured servant of the NCAA, one of many, and never made anything close to his true worth. In a truly free market, which the American economy is supposed to be, he'd already be a millionaire.

In other words, he didn't owe anything to Alabama, or Nick Saban, or the NCAA, or ESPN, or anyone else. It was the other way around—they owed him. And because they were never going to pay up, and because his opportunity to cash in was just months away, he never should have played in that championship. (Or, for that matter, the semifinal.) His status was secure, and he made the choice to give up his body for entities that wouldn't have his back if something went wrong.

Well, something did go wrong, and now he's on his own. I wish the best for Williams, and if there's any justice in the universe he'll recover and have a nice career. But it was a big mistake to sacrifice himself for people that wouldn't do the same.

In fact, there are a lot of college players this year who skipped bowl games in order to stay healthy before the NFL draft. Many of the top prospects opted out, like Kenny Pickett, Kayvon Thibodeaux, and many, many other big names. What's interesting about it is that there was barely any widespread criticism, which makes a big change from 2016, when Christian McCaffrey, Leonard Fournette, and a few others sparked a big debate by forgoing their own bowl games. It's easier now, but the difference between players like Pickett and Thibodeaux and Williams is that they weren't playing for a national championship. That extra bit of pressure and possible prestige clearly made a difference, but it shouldn't have.

If there's a silver lining to this cloud, it's that Williams' injury may show future players the consequences of continuing to play for free when a big payday awaits. The last barrier to be broken is players on championship-caliber teams, but as Williams showed, you can stick around for the title shot and lose twice. And even if Alabama had won the title, the injury to Williams would have been a worse outcome for him personally. Athletes of his ability lead a tenuous life, when the skill set they're banking on can be eradicated with one bad play, and none of them—no matter where they play—should put their futures at risk for the benefit of their exploiters.