Here’s What Top Athletes Teach Businesses About The American Dream

The Saskatchewan Roughriders of the Canadian Football League recently acquired the negotiating rights to former Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor. Thanks to admittedly ridiculous violations involving receipt of “improper benefits” (where there’s talent, there’s always going to be money) while he was a Buckeye that have essentially forced him to go pro, playing in the CFL is a very real possibility for Pryor after an uneven career at OSU that makes his being taken in the NFL’s upcoming supplemental draft as a quarterback something less than certain.

Assuming Pryor takes the CFL’s bait, until a few weeks ago he would have likely peered across the field at former USC backup quarterback Mitch Mustain of the Hamilton Tiger Cats. “Might” is the operative word here, because Mustain was recently released by the Tiger Cats, supposedly for “performance related” reasons.

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What’s notable about Pryor and Mustain is that at one time both were seemingly at the top of the world. Indeed, coming out of high school in 2008 most recruiting services ranked Pryor the #1 player in the country. Blessed with height, great speed and an impressive arm, Pryor reminded many of former Texas Longhorn great Vince Young (more on him later), including the Longhorns who aggressively recruited him. So coveted were his services that he waited weeks after National Signing Day to actually send in his Letter of Intent to Ohio State.

Mustain left high school with similar fanfare in 2006, and after a frenzied recruitment by the usual college football powers, Mustain, from Springdale, Arkansas, signed with the University of Arkansas. And while he showed early promise, he was benched by the end of his freshman season before leaving for the University of Southern California. It could be argued there that the existing talent at USC made becoming a regular starter a non-starter, but the simple truth is that Mustain, a former “can’t-miss” prospect, never lived up to the hype that surrounded him in high school.

What’s even more notable about the paths of Mustain and Pryor is how very common their stories are. Anyone who’s a college football fan knows well how very inexact the ratings are of the otherworldly recruits that their teams sign on an annual basis.

Notre Dame fans no doubt cringe when thinking about former all-everything quarterback recruit Ron Powlus. Almost immediately college football analyst Beano Cook awarded Powlus the next few Heisman Trophies; the problem there being that Powlus never even entered the Heisman discussion while in South Bend. University of Miami fans would surely like to forget former sure-fire recruit Bryan Fortay, the quarterback who was supposed to continue the school’s tradition at the glamour position only to transfer to Rutgers, then sue the school for a lack of playing time. USC fans doubtless remember Todd Marinovich, the ”ROBO-QB” who, after leaving USC under a disciplinary cloud was drafted ahead of future Hall of Famer Brett Favre before flaming out of football and normal life in spectacular fashion.

Some would say those in sports are harder to measure, that with businesses we can better utilize numbers to reasonably measure what’s great and what isn’t. All that sounds nice, but in 1982 the still-classic bookIn Search of Excellence was released to great reviews in the business press for the companies within serving as models for merely mortal CEOs to mimic. The problem there was that within two years, nearly a third of the companies featured in the book were in major financial trouble.

All of which brings us to the other, un-hyped side of the ledger. Just last week the Boston Bruins won the NHL’s Stanley Cup, and they were led by playoff-MVP Tim Thomas, the team’s goalie.

What’s perhaps less known about Thomas is how little he was thought of by the NHL’s experts. As Bob Ryan explained so well on ESPN’s Sports Reporters, Thomas was the 217th pick of the 1994 NHL Draft, but deemed unworthy by the league, he spent four years playing in Finland, followed by one in Sweden. After that Thomas toiled in the minor leagues before finally becoming a starter in the NHL at the age of 28. He then wasn’t a regular NHL player until hitting 31, but at the age of 37, this player that seemingly no one wanted just completed one of the best seasons in NHL history on the way to hockey’s world championship.

Looking at the professional football season that was completed in February, the Green Bay Packers were led on offense by quarterback Aaron Rodgers, and on defense by linebacker Clay Matthews. Matthews entered USC as a walk-on afterthought who didn’t start until the fourth game of his senior season. Rodgers generated no interest from major colleges coming out of high school, began his college career on the JC level, but once discovered by Cal Coach Jeff Tedford in fluke fashion, Rodgers sought to prove the doubters wrong and can now lay claim to being one of the NFL’s premier quarterbacks.

During his career at Cal, Rodgers’ exploits were surely noted, but largely overshadowed by glamour players a year below him: Reggie Bush (USC), Vince Young (Texas) and Matt Leinart (USC). This led to him being selected late in the first round of the NFL’s 2005 draft. Worse, he had to suffer cameras trained on him as team after team passed.

Bush, Young and Leinart experienced quite the opposite the following year, with Bush taken 2nd, Young 3rd, and Leinart 10th. Football experts were over the moon about this influx of major talent from two of college football’s powerhouses, but in a Sports Illustrated column not long ago, veteran writer Peter King gave the three can’t-miss prospects that were surely superior to Rodgers respective grades of C-, D, and F. Bush, Young and Leinart received all the adulation, but the underrated Rodgers has a Super Bowl ring, along with the game’s MVP Trophy.

The economic or success lesson here is that notions of anti-competitive behavior or anti-trust are a total waste of time. If college coaches and professional league GMs can’t reliably predict who does and does not have talent despite facing ferocious market discipline, the idea that bureaucrats at the Justice Department can is the height of absurdity.

After that, it’s probably a good idea to move beyond this notion of an “Everyone Gets a Trophy Economy” where seemingly everyone earns praise no matter the praiseworthiness of their exploits. Indeed, as the stories of Thomas, Rodgers and Matthews reveal in living color, arguably the greatest blessing in life is to be underrated, ignored, or be told “you can’t.”

John Tamny is a senior economic advisor to Toreador Research & Trading, a senior economist with H.C. Wainwright Economics, and editor of RealClearMarkets and Forbes.

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