There is no more predictable cycle in sports: Media and fans complain about everyday non-answers from coaches and athletes, then get offended whenever someone dares to say something honest and provocative. It's especially true of college athletes, who are often expected to be quiet, stay in line, take their scholarship and proclaim their love for everything about the situation, lest they be viewed as entitled.
It's a cycle that UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen already knows well, and his comments to Bleacher Report's Matt Hayes in an interview published on Tuesday are mostly considered provocative because we're not accustomed to coaches and athletes veering off the typical script and pointing out flaws in their sport.
First, Rosen expressed his frustration with the difficulty of taking classes he wants to take while having to juggle the enormous responsibilities of football. He then said this:
"Football and school don't go together. They just don't. Trying to do both is like trying to do two full-time jobs. There are guys who have no business being in school, but they're here because this is the path to the NFL. There's no other way. Then there's the other side that says raise the SAT eligibility requirements. OK, raise the SAT requirement at Alabama and see what kind of team they have. You lose athletes and then the product on the field suffers."
It's the type of quote that's ripe for immediate blowback, particularly because of his specific mention of Alabama. Pull out just that part, and it might look like Rosen is taking shots at the Crimson Tide. Read the full quote, and it's clear that Rosen is using the sport's most powerful team as an example; it's a thought that could apply to many college football programs.
"It's not that they shouldn't be in school. Human beings don't belong in school with our schedules. No one in their right mind should have a football player's schedule, and go to school. It's not that some players shouldn't be in school; it's just that universities should help them more -- instead of just finding ways to keep them eligible.
Any time any player puts into school will take away from the time they could put into football. They don't realize that they're getting screwed until it's too late. You have a bunch of people at the universities who are supposed to help you out, and they're more interested in helping you stay eligible. At some point, universities have to do more to prepare players for university life and help them succeed beyond football. There's so much money being made in this sport. It's a crime to not do everything you can to help the people who are making it for those who are spending it."
Fault can be found in Rosen painting with broad brushes, and Rosen's thoughts are unfair to people like the academic advisers who dedicate themselves to their jobs, and they're unfair to the numerous athletes who have successfully balanced demanding degree programs and football. Colleges devote significant resources to athlete-specific academic advising and tutoring, unavailable to the rest of the student population, and even if a scholarship isn't enough compensation, it is compensation. Plenty of non-athletes make substantial sacrifices while attending college, too, so it's not a problem that's unique to football players.
But just because there are valid counter-examples doesn't mean that criticism of the system as a whole is invalid. Rosen is speaking out for the many athletes who are taken advantage of, saying that compensation is unfairly capped at scholarships only, and the demands of football make it difficult for many athletes to utilize those scholarships to their full capabilities. The NCAA loves to use the term "student-athlete," but Rosen believes that reality skews far too heavily toward the "athlete" part of the term and the full value of the scholarships offered as compensation goes unrealized. It's not applicable to everybody, but there's no doubt that many athletes in many places end up being pushed through the academic path of least resistance to ensure that they stay on the football field.
Whenever arguments about player compensation are raised, it's inevitable that you'll hear scholarships referred to as "free" scholarships, which couldn't be further from the truth. Athletes put in a significant amount of work to earn those scholarships, putting their bodies on the line in the process -- Rosen knows as well as anybody; he missed the second half of last season with a shoulder injury that required surgery. There is nothing free about them, and if that's all that athletes are going to be compensated with, then Rosen rightfully points out that a full scholarship should live up to its name.
Part of speaking out on issues like this is being ready for disagreement, and there is plenty of room for disagreement with Rosen. Unfortunately, the disagreement frequently comes in the form of condescending dismissal, when outspoken players like Rosen are referred to as whiny or attention-seeking or unthankful or uneducated, despite the fact that it's clear Rosen has given deep consideration to the subject, and it's clear that there is at least some truth to what he's saying.
Rosen's outspokenness is nothing new, and predictably, anonymous NFL scouts already lined up to criticize the willingness to speak candidly -- and brashness -- of a quarterback with No. 1 overall pick potential.
"He's just a mess off the field and he's coming off the injury," an executive told The MMQB's Albert Breer in the spring, long before the latest Bleacher Report interview. "He needs to grow up, but the talent is off the charts."
When honesty and independent thoughts can be labeled as character concerns, it's quite evident that football needs more players like Rosen. It's extraordinarily rare that an active student-athlete, who has clearly spent a lot of time thinking about the subject, speaks out about his experience and the experience of others in his position honestly, without worrying about the outrage that's sure to follow.
Maybe Rosen didn't put all of this thoughts perfectly. Maybe there are flaws in his arguments. Maybe you disagree. That's fine. But college football would be a lot better off if athletes in Rosen's position, using their platform to speak up for themselves and others, were encouraged to be honest and speak openly about problems they face instead of being vilified for daring to reject the status quo and address uncomfortable truths that may disrupt the system.