Keeping Score

The Jadeveon Clowney Dilemma: College Sports Can Be A Lousy Game Show

The South Carolina star -- and any star college player bound for the pros -- must assign probability to uncertain events

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Streeter Lecka / Getty Images

Jadeveon Clowney at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, S.C., Oct. 5, 2013

Jadeveon Clowney, the star defensive end for the University of South Carolina, should be in the NFL right now, making millions of dollars. He’s a freak talent; last year, Clowney was the best defensive player in college football. ¬†On New Year’s Day, he hit Michigan’s Vincent Smith so hard in the backfield during the Outback Bowl, Smith’s helmet fell off.

But an NFL rule restricts a singular talent like Clowney from making all that money, at the moment he’s ready to make all that money. The league mandates that players spend three years in college, or somewhere else, after high school before becoming eligible for the draft. So Clowney had to return to campus for his junior year.

It’s not going all that swell. Before the season, Clowney was a Heisman favorite. In summer camp, however, Clowney was bothered by shoulder and knee injuries. His coach, Steve Spurrier, suggested that Clowney might be dogging it a bit. “We’ve got a bunch of hurt guys who act like they are really hurt so right now they may not play,” Spurrier said.

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Clowney did play in the August 29th season opener, against North Carolina, and looked gassed during South Carolina’s 27-10 win. He’s fallen short of expectations since then, and backed out of last Saturday’s game against Kentucky because of a rib injury, a decision that surprised his coaches. Spurrier, again, didn’t seem too pleased. “You’ll have to ask him that,” Spurrier responded when asked about Clowney’s commitment¬†to South Carolina.

Spurrier has since changed his tone, and defended Clowney during a Tuesday press conference. Clowney returned to practice Thursday, and says he’s fully committed to the Gamecocks. His availability for Saturday’s game against Arkansas is still in question.

Only Clowney knows how badly he’s injured. But if he is indeed protecting his body for the pros, Clowney may be a star student of economics.

In a system that forces top athletes onto college campuses, and then doesn’t pay them their full worth, stars like Clowney face behavioral dilemmas. “College sports has an incentive problem,” says David Berri, a sports economist at Southern Utah University, and co-author of Wages of Wins, a 2006 book on sports economics. ” The athletes are not stupid. They are looking at it and going, ‘why should I do this? Why should I risk getting hurt?'”

Clowney must assign probability to uncertain events. He can play all-out, but risk losing his pro career on a single snap. He stay on the sideline, but risk losing significant money if his draft prospects slip. Coming into this season, Clowney was the consensus top selection in next year’s draft. According to some reports, scouts are already chirping about his character. If Clowney were to slip from the first overall pick to, say, the tenth pick, that could cost him $10 million. But then again, the tenth overall pick in this year’s draft, Chance Warmack of the Tennessee Titans, signed a four-year, $12.6 million contract. Still a pretty rich deal.

Shane Frederick, a decision sciences specialist at the Yale School of Management, warns that a pure economic choice could backfire more than Clowney realizes. NFL teams may fear that if Clowney is too motivated by money, he’ll slack off after cashing a fat rookie signing bonus. If that thinking creeps into enough NFL front offices, Clowney could slip further and further down the draft board.

“You can almost picture Regis Philbin in the corner, going ‘Jadeveon Clowney, what are you going to do?'” says Berri. “In a free market, he’d be in the NFL already. Instead, you have this tremendously complicated problem. It’s like a lousy game show.”

MORE: TIME Cover Story – It’s Time To Pay College Players