Chris Conley sat at a podium during SEC Media Days last month, the questions coming from all directions.
Literally… and figuratively.
The Georgia senior wide receiver turned his head to the left, and heard somebody ask about his coach at Georgia, Mark Richt.
While Richt is about winning, Conley said, “He looks at the character of the men playing for him.”
Then his attention turned to the middle of the crowd, where somebody had a question about video games that utilize his likeness without using his name.
“I’ll put it this way,” he answered. “There’s no way you can tell me a (fictitious video game player) who is 6-(foot)-3, from Georgia, has my skin tone and wears my uniform, has my number, is not me in a video game.”
And to the right, where another reporter asked him about whether he has heard from the makers of Star Wars.
Yes, Star Wars.
“I didn’t really hear from anyone from the original Star Wars,” joked Conley who, aside from being one of Georgia’s best returning receivers, is also a budding filmmaker whose Star Wars fan film, “Retribution,” went viral during the offseason. “Because that might have been a cease and desist or a lawsuit, so I’m glad we didn’t hear from them.”
Whether it’s about Georgia football issues, NCAA lawsuit issues or even filmmaking, this was a guy with answers. He is a true Renaissance man.
In this day and age, we may forget those exist. College football is an $8 billion industry, one that became that much bigger when ESPN launched the SEC Network last week. It’s easy to think of the players as simple mercenaries, their weekly gridiron wars the main reason why all that money is generated.
That’s not always, and is often not, the case. Players like Conley remind us that we can never treat college sports like a minor league, a simple stepping stone to professional sports.
The college experience has afforded Conley an opportunity to prepare for an NFL career, something Richt said he expects to come to fruition for the talented pass catcher. But it’s also given him a chance to move beyond the sport.
There is the possibility of becoming an athletic administrator. He’s already on the NCAA Student-Athlete Advisory Committee.
And there is his budding career as a filmmaker.
Asked if he’d rather go to the Pro Bowl or the Oscars, Conley quickly answered, “Both.”
And why not?
College has opened three avenues for him, a happy accident of the evolution of American sport. Perhaps football should have a minor league instead of forcing a linebacker to also be a scholar, but the sport evolved on college campuses and eventually became what it is today.
That model is not going to change fundamentally, so what we are left with is constantly tinkering with an imperfect system while celebrating the victories that come as a result of it. Conley’s story is certainly one of those.
As fans prepare to pay exorbitant ticket prices to crowd into ever-expanding stadiums and watch football programs that are more well-funded than ever and coached by multimillionaires, we should celebrate the players who truly take advantage of the student-athlete opportunity.
And before you dismiss the young men you watch this fall as future millionaires, consider the futures of the kids sitting in the student section along with the kids on the field.
Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah is one of the top running backs in the Big Ten. (AP Photo/Tony Ding)
Ameer Abdullah, the thousand-yard running back at Nebraska, understands the opportunity afforded to him and every other student in college and he explained it in the “Essence of a Student-Athlete” speech he gave at Big Ten Media Days.
“I read somewhere over one’s life, a college graduate earns up to a million dollars more than someone with a high school diploma,” he Abdullah. “Just think about that for a minute. A million dollars. That’s like saying you can win the lottery by going to class and just doing your work. Now if that’s not motivation for us student-athletes to go to class, I guess nothing will.”
In other words, it’s not just the players on the field that may see a seven-figure benefit from their experience.
And that’s where our imperfect model for player development gets it right. No, it shouldn’t be the business of institutions of learning to put so much emphasis on games.
But in a society that has made higher education less accessible — costs for students have gone up as budgets across the country have been cut — even as much of the rest of the world becomes more educated, maybe this flawed sports model has stumbled onto something.
We force athletes into college, sometimes almost against their will. Maybe we should give a similar push to the rest of the population, instead of discouraging them with rising costs and crippling student loan debt. Maybe, someday, we’ll figure out how to do that.
In the meantime, let’s celebrate athletes like Conley and Abdullah, even if you aren’t a Georgia or Nebraska fan. Instead of getting cynical about how much money is spent on college sports, how about rooting for the guys who squeeze the most out of every penny spent on their student-athlete experience.