I attend a ton of sporting events, both as a professional and (far more often) as a fan, but nothing I've seen in person over the last few years is as consistently electrifying as watching Todd Gurley play football for the University of Georgia.
Gurley looks like an evolutionary leap over everyone else on the field, faster, stronger, quicker and smarter, able both to accelerate and slow time at his whims. Football is an extremely complicated game, with thousands of people constantly tinkering at the edges for any possible competitive advantage, but Gurley makes it astoundingly simple.
Watching him play turns the game into backlot football again: Give it to the big, fast kid and watch him go. He's hypnotic: He plays like the game was specifically invented for him, which is why it was such a bummer when it was announced a few days ago that he was suspended indefinitely for allegedly receiving money for use of his likeness or autograph.
In other words, college football fans might never get to see Gurley play for Georgia ever again. I'm lucky, I've had a terrific view of Gurley here in Athens at Sanford Stadium for two seasons now. I have two nice season tickets in the East end zone; here's my view.
Georgia vs. Troy 20 September 2014
Good seats, right? I'm happy with them.
To buy season tickets to a revenue sport at a public institution like the University of Georgia, you must pay a Personal Seat License. They don't call it a Personal Seat License, of course; they call it a "donation to the athletic fund." Being Midwestern, there's nothing I dislike more than getting into details of money, but these minimum donations, they're not cheap. I find it worth it: To me, it's money well spent. But they're pricey, no question. It's a larger percentage of my yearly income than I necessarily feel comfortable making.
How pricey? A key aspect -- the key aspect -- of Georgia's investigation is just how much Gurley may or may not have sold his autograph for. That will determine how many games he is suspended for. Here are the exact details:
Under NCAA rules, Gurley would face a potential one-game suspension (10 percent of the team's competition) if he accepted improper benefits ranging from $100 to $400. The penalty would increase to two games (20 percent) for amounts from $400 to $700, and to four games (30 percent) for amounts greater than $700.
If I would have just given my yearly pittance -- the donation, along with the price of the tickets -- to Todd Gurley rather than the University of Georgia in exchange for his autograph … it would cost him four games. Just from my personal two tickets.
And Stanford Stadium holds 92,746 people every home Saturday. And every SEC school got a $20.9 million check from the conference last season, and that was before the SEC Network launched.
Here in Athens, signs have started popping up around town. Inspired by the #freegurley hashtag, you've seen "Free Gurley" on every available public space. Here is at the great 40 Watt Club. Here it is at a parking garage. I've even seen it on a few bumper stickers. (I had no idea bumper stickers could be printed so fast.) As a phenomenon, it is catching on.
So it is worth asking what, precisely, we're supposed to be saving Gurley from?
Todd Gurley is one of the best 10 running backs on earth, and he has been for roughly 18 months now. He's better this year, but there's no way, had they been given the opportunity, an NFL team wouldn't have paid him good money to play for them. But that's not how the NFL and college football work. You must have at least three years elapse from your high school graduation before you're even eligible to get paid for your craft. Todd Gurley would have been a first-round draft pick this season, were he allowed. But he wasn't. So he had to come back for his junior year and play another season of college football.
Now, let's think about this from Gurley's perspective. The career window for running backs -- particularly in an NFL that is increasingly devaluing the position -- is vanishingly short. The average career length of an NFL running back is 2.57 years, and the average NFL player makes less, amazingly, than the average NHL player. Todd Gurley, for his otherworldly talent, even though he's still only 20 years old, has a ticking clock above his head at all times. He only gets to do this for so long. There are only so many bullets in the gun. Also: One wrong hit -- or even one wrong plant of the knee -- and it could be over like that.
The payday -- that's to say, the ability to, finally, receive some compensation for putting your body and future earning potential on the line once a week for other people's entertainment -- is just around the corner: Gurley only has a few more weeks left to play for free. Now, I don't see it that way, and the people with those signs around town don't see it that way, and the University of Georgia (currently paying for Gurley's legal representation, by the way) certainly don't see it that way: We all see it as Gurley entering the most important stretch of football in his career, a chance to lead the Bulldogs to the College Football Playoff and potentially a Heisman Trophy. ("We're just ready to get him cleared and back out there," his teammates are saying.) But why should Gurley see it that way? The rest of Georgia's season isn't his prime: It's the obstruction. It's the last obstacle to be hurdled.
The insanity of Gurley -- a man whose jersey is at every store in town, including a kids version my son wears to tailgates -- having to sign autographs for $5 to $20 bucks in the first place has been well-documented but still can't be understated. How much money has Todd Gurley personally added to the coffers of televised sports executives and athletic directors this season?
Think about the world of sports, all the money that goes into and out of it. We in media are of course a part of that, and the amount of money that would get Gurley suspended for multiple games is roughly equivalent to what a small freelance story you wrote for this Website would get you paid. I'm proud of the work we do here, but suffice it to say, I'm not sure we're contributing more to the sports world than Todd Gurley is. But he's got to do it, because we offer him no more recourse.
So, dammit, if you're Todd Gurley … isn't this precisely what you should do? Todd Gurley's name at the University of Georgia will never be bigger than it is right now. If someone were being coldly logical about this, the smartest way for Gurley to secure his future isn't to get back on the field, but to sign every piece of memorabilia in sight, right now, for whatever he can get. Then get suspended and spend the next six months training for the combine. No one will hit him, his knee won't plant strangely on cheap turf, he can even, lo, hire an agent to make sure someone is watching out for what's best for him, not the university or that guy you'll never meet and shouldn't care about who's screaming for him from the East end zone.
I have little doubt that the Georgia football program, and coach Mark Richt, and his staff, care about Todd Gurley, and want him to do well. But I also know he's not their first priority. If he were, guys like Bryan Allen -- the memorabilia dealer who allegedly paid Gurley for autographed memorabilia -- wouldn't be in business.
Right now, if Gurley doesn't play again for Georgia this year, all he loses is potentially a Heisman Trophy that they could take away from him someday anyway and the small possibility of playing in a College Football Playoff that will literally double the amount of money that goes to hundreds of people who are not the ones actually playing the games. (And with this controversy having over his head the odds of winning the Heisman have are shrinking by the day.)
It would make me, and everyone in my town, and millions of college football fans, sad if Gurley was finished as a Georgia Bulldog. But with all due respect: Why should anybody care about us? We allow this corrupt system to exist. If we want players to put their bodies on the line every Saturday while we scream off all the bourbon we consumed pregame, we should make it worth their while. If we do not change the system, we cannot complain if someone begs out of it because it is not in their best interests.
As a fan, I really hope I get to watch Gurley play football in Athens against this year. But if I were close to him, I'd tell him to stay away. A logical person would sit tight and rest until the combine. A logical person would say to hell with all this.