The story of University of Illinois tight end Luke Ford may be the story that best exemplifies the dramatic transitions underway in college football. It is also a story that highlights the absurdity of the NCAAs management of college football.
Luke Ford was the number 1 high school prospect in Illinois, and the number 3 ranked tight end in the class of 2018. Watching recruiting battles is a favorite activity and frequent obsession of diehard college fans. Ford was the number one target of the Fighting Illini. In some ways, he was a dream prospect for the Illini – an elite prospect located in downstate (not Chicago) Illinois.
For those outside the Illini Nation, the University of Illinois has long struggled to recruit athletes from Chicago. Of course, there is a history to these things, and plenty of blame is thrown in each direction. But, there is also the fundamental issue that Champaign-Urbana feels like a different world from the Chicago area. Traveling from Chicago to Champaign is an endless trip through cornfields, and once you arrive, there just isn’t that much there. In Chicago, Illinois is often just another college, but downstate Illinois is the state school.
But the Illini came up short in the Luke Ford recruiting battle, losing to the University of Georgia. So maybe the Illini were a close second, or maybe they were never a serious contender and were kept on the list for the sake of appearances. Let’s assume that the Illini were a close second.
In an earlier era, I think Illinois beats Georgia for Ford. By “earlier era,” I mean the time before money flooded college football. Before big money flowed in and programs stopped being schools and became brands. By the mid 2010’s there had been a separation of programs. The top tier programs like Alabama, Texas, Ohio State, and Georgia with resources, facilities, and fan bases put them in a different league than programs like Illinois. Is this “separation” the fault of the NCAA? Well, the NCAA was in charge as a professional sports business model was adopted without adding any mechanisms for maintaining competitive balance.
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What the NCAA did maintain was restrictive policies on collegiate athletes. However, now the NCAA policies that restrict athlete freedoms are rapidly collapsing. Most notably, athletes now have the right to monetize Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL).
Coming back to the case of Luke Ford, would NIL freedoms changed his college choice? We obviously don’t know. And maybe Luke doesn’t know. While Ford would have been the star of Illinois’ class, he was the tenth highest-rated recruit at Georgia. What would the NIL opportunities have been at Illinois for the star recruit who chose to stay home and attend the state university? Given that Ford would have been the highest-rated recruit since the classes of Ron Zook, the NIL money at Georgia may have dwarfed that available at Georgia.
Once he arrived at Georgia, Ford found himself outside the core rotation. Ford finished the season with 1 reception for 4 yards. Following the season, Ford chose to transfer to a school closer to family to be closer to an ill relative. Many students, including athletes, decide to change schools after freshman year for various reasons. Ford wasn’t the only member of the Georgia 2018 recruiting to transfer as UGA’s top recruit Justin Fields also decided to move on from Athens.
Luke Ford ultimately transferred to the University of Illinois. The University of Illinois is located less than 200 miles from Ford’s hometown and ill family member. However, the NCAA did not grant a hardship waiver and Ford had to sit out a season. In contrast, Fields transferred to Ohio State and was granted immediate eligibility. The lack of logic, or fairness, in these decisions inspired the Twitter hashtag #freelukeford.
The NCAA’s decision was arbitrary, illogical, and damaging. After seeing minimal action at UGA, Ford then had to sit out the next season. When Ford returned to full-time duty the following year, he had minimal impact and caught 2 passes for the Illini.
Was Ford overrated? The jury is still out, but Ford had his first collegiate touchdown in Illinois’ 2021 season opener. It is also possible that the added year layoff imposed by the NCAA had a damaging effect on Ford’s productivity. Two years away from significant playing can be incredibly damaging to a young athlete.
Let’s review the sequence of events. The NCAA’s restrictions tip the balance to Ford choosing a more glamorous school. Once there, he gets lost in the shuffle and rides the bench. Next, based on playing time and family issues, he decides to come back home. Again, the NCAA intervenes and penalizes Ford with a year of inactivity (a suspension of sorts). Adding insult to injury, they imposed no sanction on a higher-profile player (Fields) transferring to a higher-profile school (tOSU).
And then, two years later, the transfer portal is wide open with no one serving a year in limbo, and now every school has a NIL program to help students get paid.
Why did the NCAA make Luke Ford its final victim? Because when you put the story in context, Ford seems to have suffered material harm for no reason. And if we agree that Luke Ford’s treatment was arbitrary, unfair, and damaging, then how does the NCAA deserve much of a role in the future of college football.