Robert Nkemdiche, the son of immigrants, is proving himself to be a great first-generation American. The defensive end from Loganville, Ga., is the top-ranked recruit in the class of 2013. He already has committed to sign with Clemson in February along with two of his Grayson High teammates. That commitment is non-binding, but Nkemdiche is using the only leverage he has to negotiate the best deal for himself and his friends.
"I am waiting on Clemson to offer Ryan," Nkemdiche told the excellent Michael Carvell of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "When that happens, it's locked ... it's a done deal ... it's over."
Ryan is Ryan Carter, a 5-foot-10, 175-pound Grayson defensive back. If Carter received and accepted an offer from Clemson, it would bring the total of former Grayson players planning to attend Clemson to five. Tailback Wayne Gallman and defensive back David Kamara committed to the Tigers before Nkemdiche, and former Grayson quarterback Nick Schuessler has given up his scholarship at Mississippi State to become a preferred walk-on at Clemson.
If it sounds like a five-for-one deal, that's because it probably is. College coaches consider the 6-5, 260-pound Nkemdiche a future star. The son of an Atlanta physician father and a Nigerian politician mother already looks like an NFL veteran. He seems capable of negotiating like one, too.
After Nkemdiche's demand hit the web, the criticism was as predictable as it was tired: Nkemdiche was a prima donna, blackmailing Clemson to suit his own desires. Never mind that Nkemdiche aimed to help a friend. Never mind that the system in college football is stacked ludicrously against the high-schooler and in favor of the millionaire coach.
It's always hilarious when people criticize athletes for something they would do every day and twice on Sunday in their own lives. No one who has ever used leverage in a negotiation has any right to rip Nkemdiche here. Used another job offer to squeeze a raise out of your employer? Same concept. Used a connection to get a friend hired? Ditto. When you do it, you're being a good capitalist, but when Nkemdiche does it, he's being a spoiled, entitled brat? That's crazy. Nkemdiche is doing exactly what he should do: using the power he has to his advantage before he enters a system in which he'll have little pull. (This also might be a good place to note that, according to figures provided to the U.S. Department of Education, Clemson football generated $31.7 million in revenue during the 2010-11 school year.)
Nkemdiche is using all the leverage he can within NCAA rules before he signs the National Letter of Intent, which might be the worst contract in sports. Once Nkemdiche signs, he loses every bit of leverage. A school doesn't even have to guarantee his scholarship once he signs. Once he enrolls, he'll be subject to transfer rules. He'll also be subject to rules that restrict how much he can make at an off-campus job. But now? He can ask for the moon -- at least for others.
Maybe people would understand better if Nkemdiche had just asked for $180,000 for himself. But that would have been against NCAA rules. It isn't against NCAA rules, however, to ask for a scholarship for a buddy. This happens all the time. It rarely happens so publicly, though. In essence, Nkemdiche asked for $168,272 on Carter's behalf. That's the amount Clemson estimates an out-of-state student will spend for four years at the school. Would Carter have gotten free college elsewhere? Probably. According to the AJC, he has offers from Ole Miss, Georgia State, Tulane, Arkansas State and Southern Miss. But none of those schools are at Clemson's level, so if Nkemdiche's plan works, he'll be doing Carter a tremendous solid.
Whether the plan works is up to Clemson coach Dabo Swinney. Since NCAA rules don't allow payment of players beyond a scholarship, 85 full rides are the only currency Swinney has. Swinney must weigh the opportunity cost of giving out the extra scholarships against losing Nkemdiche, whom Swinney thinks will be an elite pass rusher in college.
Is Nkemdiche worth that many scholarships? Swinney and his staff will have to decide. But consider this question: How many scholarships would Tim Tebow have been worth? Cam Newton? Ndamukong Suh? All players aren't created equal. Some are worth far more than others.
Swinney, by all accounts, is an excellent recruiter. He could probably talk a cow into signing with McDonald's University. He got his job after Tommy Bowden was fired in 2008, and he won the ACC title with the Tigers in 2011. But Clemson is still a notch below the Alabamas and the Oklahomas. The Tigers have landed stars such as C.J. Spiller and Sammy Watkins, but they haven't recruited as consistently as those elite programs. A national No. 1 overall prospect can be the pied piper who brings in other future All-Americans. But is it worth it if, to get that pied piper, Clemson has to spend three scholarships on his buddies?
That's the cost-benefit analysis Swinney and his staff must compute. No matter what the NCAA wants you to believe, this is a contract negotiation. And bless Nkemdiche for using all the juice he has before it runs dry.