“Freedom isn’t free.” You’ve no doubt heard this phrase, usually used as a reminder to Americans that whatever freedoms they enjoy have been protected, at least in part, by men and women willing to spill blood. Ukrainians have certainly had a chance to reflect on this concept over the past year. While considered old-fashioned by some, the phrase is applicable to many other situations. The movement over the past few years to provide college athletes with more freedom including their ability to control and benefit from their “Name, Image and Likeness” (NIL), the freedom to transfer from school to school more easily and frequently, and the chance to complete their athletic eligibility at a school that offers an attractive graduate program, among others.
It can’t be said, however, that these new-found freedoms have come without cost. A new breed of college football coach of which Oregon’s Dan Lanning is clearly one – and some older coaches who understand the new system’s strengths and weaknesses – have focused much more on the importance of “roster management.” For many football programs, gone are the days when a handful of scholarships would be continued for players who were well down the depth chart, weren’t producing at an acceptable level, or who represented an overload of players in a certain position room. While an extreme case – and one aided by NCAA rules allowing a first-year Coach to clear out any players he wishes and a larger-than-average group that wanted to move elsewhere – Colorado has turned over virtually its entire roster since the arrival of Deion Sanders. All-in-all, these coaches are working to actively replace unproductive roster spots with improvements.
Football is not the only sport where this is happening. We have started to see some recognition in non-revenue sports, particularly those with a relatively small roster, that unproductive or ill-fitting players simply cannot be kept on scholarship if the program wants to have success. The existence of the transfer portal means that any player can leave the program virtually at any time. The Oregon Women’s Basketball program has certainly seen its share of upheaval in recent years, with, in some cases, entire classes leaving after a single season and players transferring out mid-season. It’s been instructive to watch Head Coach Kelly Graves switch up his roster management strategy as a result. At one point Graves was forced to use the portal as injuries and transfers left Oregon with just 8 players. Going into 2023-24, Graves recently told 247Sports that he had decided not to use the portal to seek “upgrades” for players he already had, but rather to supplement the roster.
In recent days, another example of the tightrope walk the new rules are providing – and the changes in the way Coaches are thinking throughout college sports – came to light in the Oregon Volleyball program. Another sport with a smaller roster (17 at this writing), the program was recently rocked by revelations that Outside Hitter Taylor Williams had been first encouraged to play and then asked to “medically retire” from the team due to a severe ankle injury sustained in practice almost two years ago. [Note: this information was first reported by Chris Hansen of the Eugene Register-Guard. The story is behind a paywall, but you are encouraged to read it there if possible. This article provides a much less detailed recitation of Williams’ story].
The story has several head-scratching elements, as well as plenty of pathos. An MRI showed that Williams had completely torn two ligaments in her ankle and suffered partial tears to two other ligaments. Normally, this level of injury would be likely to require a minimum of 12 weeks to heal. Despite the seeming severity of her injuries, Williams says an orthopedic surgeon told her she could not do additional damage to the ankle by playing. Based on this statement, Oregon’s athletic training staff cleared Williams to “return to play,” although she was making little rehab progress in the weeks after the injury and still experiencing pain in the ankle. Williams played, with decreasing effectiveness, in most of the next dozen Oregon games. Ultimately, Williams needed surgery – including the insertion of stabilizing screws in her ankle. At the end of Oregon’s 2021 season, Oregon Head Coach Matt Ulmer – whose decision to return Williams to the court was based on the training staff’s recommendation – asked Williams to leave the program or medically retire.
Medical retirements due to significant injuries are certainly no stranger to Oregon sports fans. In football, which after all is a “collision sport,” such retirements are fairly common. Players like Thomas Tyner, Justin Johnson and Maceal Afaese – who left just this year – have all medically retired from the Oregon program. While Williams’ situation is hardly unique, it’s also not as common for non-contact sports. It shows that the pressures of the new reality of player freedom are also being felt across the college sports spectrum. In previous years, Coach Ulmer likely would have felt he could allow Williams to remain at Oregon, to remain on scholarship and to either wait for her to fully heal, or to complete her eligibility and education. Coach Ulmer now faces a different reality – Coaches are realizing it’s much more difficult to treat their players like “family” and trade loyalty to the player for loyalty from the player when any player can leave at any time for any reason. The need for Coach Ulmer to open up that roster spot, particularly when he’s lost a player of Williams pre-injury quality, is now much greater, especially given the growing success of Oregon’s volleyball program.
In many ways, Williams’ story is a tragic one. She faces an uncertain future where she may not be able to continue playing the sport she loves, may not be able to continue her education – at least on an athletic scholarship - and in a worst-case scenario may face years of chronic pain. The future of college sports, however, is more certain. There is a cost to be exacted for player freedom. Not every athlete will have to pay it, but for those that do the price may be high.