The Times West Virginian

June 14, 2013

HERTZEL COLUMN: The gamble of leaving college early

By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN — One of the first lessons they try to get across to a student-athlete when he comes to school is the evils of gambling.

In truth, college sports still echo with the basketball point-fixing scandal from 60 years ago and a few others that have surfaced over the years, both on a professional and collegiate level.

Kids understand this, however, and it isn’t something that causes much alarm among administrators.

But this is just one kind of gambling, and it is far more important that college administrators and coaches find ways to bring this under control, for it ruins far more lives than the illegal kind of gambling.

A brief item in the news the other day brought this to light, an item that was very much surprising.

Even before NFL training camp opened, former West Virginia safety/linebacker Robert Sands was cut by the Cincinnati Bengals, presenting the possibility that once seemed like a budding great career could be over.

Sands felt he was ready for the NFL after his junior season, leaving WVU to gamble on getting an early start, stating at the time that he was ready to pursue his dream.

“I want to pursue my dream and play in the NFL, so I have entered my name in the NFL Draft,” Sands said. “I believe I have proven myself as a playmaker at the college level, and now it’s time for me to turn my attention to the professional level and prove myself once again.”

And off he went, to what has been a one-game NFL career, one in which he did not so much as record a tackle.

That is right. Sands played one game his rookie year and was on injured reserve with a damaged chest muscle his second year. An altercation with his wife that led to an arrest in January certainly did nothing to enhance his image with the Bengals, a team that has had its share of image problems with WVU players.

This past week the oft-trouble Adam “They Once Called Me Pac Man” Jones, who had seemed to have straightened out his life, pleaded not guilty to a charge of slapping a woman in a Cincinnati bar, claiming self-defense and claiming she had thrown a beer bottle at his head.

And, of course, there was the untimely death of Chris Henry, the talented but troubled wide receiver who wound up dying in a fall from a truck in the midst of a domestic dispute.

All three — Sands, Jones and Henry — had two things in common.

They played at West Virginia and they left early.

Certainly there are times when athletes are justified in leaving early, probably when it is more of a gamble with their future to return to school and risk injury rather than taking the money, but it isn’t as open and shut as it seems.

Joe Alexander went to the NBA from WVU early and was a No. 1 draft selection, picking up a big chunk of change, but he never lived up to the pick. Jones’ career was troubled, Sands has been terribly disappointing and Henry never really had a chance because of brain damage.

It is obvious what someone is doing leaving early for a professional league. The upside is spectacular, the money beyond belief, especially for a kid who comes from an impoverished background.

But there is another side. You’re going to be a No. 1 draft pick and get a big bonus, leave ... if you are physically and mentally ready. If school really wasn’t a priority, if college isn’t a place for learning to you, the athlete, move on.

However, if you fail, that’s a long life you are looking at with nothing to fall back on.

Remember, these are 20-, 21-year-old kids, kids who can benefit from another year of college as far as knowledge goes, who can benefit forever from obtaining a degree — especially if they are borderline draft picks — and who will enjoy the life of being a college student, which changes once you are out there in the cold, cruel world.

It isn’t just a knee-jerk reaction thing, and this week when West Virginia junior left-hander Harrison Musgrave and junior infielder Sean Carley along with incoming freshman Dmitri Casas said no to the draft, they showed that.

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.