Raynor: Justyn Ross’ cautionary tale shouldn’t get lost in NIL arguments

CLEMSON, SC — Nick Saban rarely gushes.

But in the week leading up to the 2018 National Championship game, even he couldn’t help himself.

Saban had recruited wide receiver from Clemson and Phenix City, Alabama native Justyn Ross, “with as much enthusiasm as possible” before Ross committed to Clemson as the state’s top player. ‘Alabama. In Clemson’s national semifinal that season, Ross torched the Notre Dame defense to the tune of six receptions for 148 yards and two touchdowns in the Cotton Bowl. Even with Tee Higgins on Clemson’s roster, it was Ross who was turning into quarterback Trevor Lawrence’s most dangerous vertical threat at the most critical moment of the season.

“It’s a big target; he’s very crafty for a guy who’s just a freshman,” Saban said at the time. “We would love to have him here.”

Ross caught six passes for 153 yards and a touchdown against the Crimson Tide en route to a 44-16 Clemson win for the Tigers’ second national title in the college football playoff era. Even arguably the best head coach in college football history didn’t have answers.

“I mean, we tried to cover number 8,” Saban said of Ross’ 74-yard touchdown. “He caught the ball, made a big play.”

It made last week even more shocking, when Ross, a former four-star receiver, was not selected in the NFL Draft. Even when the flurry of free agent signings became public knowledge, Ross wasn’t picked up until Monday afternoon, when the Kansas City Chiefs signed him as an undrafted free agent.

Ross’ downfall is a direct result of learning in the spring of 2020 that he had a congenital fusion in his spine, something that had previously gone undetected. He underwent surgery in June 2020 to treat a bulging disc, missed the entire 2020 season as he recovered and returned to football in 2021 after fearing he would never play again. Because he will have the fusion for the rest of his life, NFL teams were hesitant to take a chance on him. How his NFL career will pan out remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: No matter what happens at the next level, Ross not being drafted is a reminder we all need in college football.

This is why NIL was – and is – forbidden.

It’s a shame that Ross’ life-changing diagnosis came before his big payday, but it’s the kind of change lawyers and congressmen decided to make when they backed the idea. of NIL.

Since July 1, when the NCAA lifted restrictions and allowed players to start enjoying their name, image and likeness, NIL has turned college sports upside down. Collectives have changed the landscape of the sport, and boosters can essentially buy recruits through auctions, like the $8 million rookie. Athleticism reported in March.

Just days ago, the debates raged after Miami guard’s agent Isaiah Wong told ESPN that Wong would consider entering the transfer portal unless he receives a better NIL agreement. (He didn’t come in.) ESPN also reported Saturday that Pittsburgh officials believe USC may be tampering in an effort to land Panthers star receiver Jordan Addison. (Schools have until Tuesday to enter player names into the database.)

College coaches who believe college athletics are burning in wild West fashion because of NIL will continue to receive flack from critics who are quick to point out that coaches make millions and can be bought off. themselves at all times in a capitalist market. But no one can argue against NIL in cases like Ross’s.

As frustrating as Ross missed the NIL window in 2018 when his stock was at an all-time high, it’s equally heartening that it wasn’t for the players behind him. Players should have some sort of protection against unforeseen diagnoses or injuries, especially when they’ve built a brand like Ross did after his freshman year.

“I’m not on Twitter and all that, but Jerry Rice obviously tweeted, ‘Thanks to Justyn Ross,'” Swinney said the morning after the 2018 National Championship game, illustrating how Ross’ brand had grown. the extent. “It’s pretty cool there. You catch Jerry Rice’s eye, which is pretty neat for a young man.

Even if NIL existed in 2018 when Ross was at the height of his college career, he probably wouldn’t have come close to earning the kind of money that comes with being a first-round pick.

But imagine the accolades Ross would have garnered as a true freshman after leading Clemson with 1,000 receiving yards despite never starting a game. Imagine all the local businesses in Clemson and Alabama that wanted to work with him, in addition to the big national brands reserved for top sports stars, especially after Rice tweeted about him.

When former Clemson catcher Hunter Renfrow grabbed the national championship-winning pass in 2016, he couldn’t buy dog ​​food at Clemson without being bombarded with autograph requests. Ross, also a high school slam-dunk contest winner, had a similarly high stock in 2018.

“It’s amazing. He’s gifted. … He’s something,” Swinney said in 2019. “He’s one of the best I’ve ever been around.

Ross eventually struck a deal with Raising Canes and Ingles, a Southeast grocery store, and also launched his own line of custom products in 2021. To say he missed NIL entirely would be inaccurate. Still, the last wide receiver taken in the first round last week was Arkansas’ Treylon Burks, who went to the Tennessee Titans at No. 18 overall. According to Spotrac.com, Burks’ total value is expected to be around $14.4 million, and his signing bonus should land just north of $7.6 million. Ross had more catches (46), received yards (1,000) and touchdowns (nine) as a true freshman than any of the six wide receivers who went in the first round, including including Drake London, the first receiver on the board at No. 8. at the Atlanta Falcons.

Even though NIL only paid Ross a fraction of what the last first-round receiver will receive, it’s possible he made around seven figures.

We should not lose sight of this as the NIL arguments ensue. There are undoubtedly consequences to the new legislation, but if a player like Ross is able to better prepare for future financial stability because he is able to make money from his name, image and his resemblance is a victory for the sport.

It stinks that it has become a cautionary tale, caught in the middle of the model of amateurism that existed for so many years before this new era. But when you think of NIL, and all the arguments around him, you’ll always think of him. And what could have been.

(Photo: John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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