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From the NFL to college, Roquan Smith has always been about setting precedents

Many have wondered about the young linebacker’s issue in ongoing negotiations with the Bears. Look no further than Smith’s player rights fighting past for his motivation.

Roquan Smith at his not-so-fateful college signing event in February 2015.
Los Angeles Times

Surely, the Bears never thought it’d come to this. Their 2018 No. 8 overall pick Roquan Smith’s ongoing rookie contract holdout is the story lurking prominently in the shadows of a training camp that should’ve been completely about newfound optimism.

Surely, the Bears couldn’t have foreseen a player they saw as the future of the face of their defense extending his holdout through what will now likely be the entirety of camp, and potentially the preseason.

Which is why, clearly, the Bears haven’t checked up on their history of Smith being more than willing to act as a modern football pioneer. The adage goes if you don’t know your history, then you’re doomed to repeat it. As pointed out by an astute observation of a Windy City Gridiron reader, Smith’s line in the sand with the Bears isn’t the first time he’s fought against a big money institution incredibly skewed against players.

In February 2015 on National Signing Day, Smith committed to attend UCLA as one of the nation’s top college football recruits coming out of Macon County High School in Montezuma, Georgia. He had the usual meet-and-greet and the ESPNU cameras focused on his decision as he put on a UCLA hat.

But crucially, he never signed a National Letter of Intent: something college recruits have always been typically expected to do. Those letters, as VICE writer Patrick Hruby detailed in his column on Smith’s trailblazing move in 2017, are incredibly detrimental to players - most of which are impressionable 18-year-old kids - because of how contractually binding they are, how they don’t guarantee you a full scholarship, and the mess they can create if you change your mind. An agreement that gives away essentially all rights to schools with little to no stakes for said schools. It then opens the door for colleges to punish players with as much as a lost season of eligibility if they change their mind of attendance. You know, because malleable teenagers never change their mind.

So while Smith “committed” to UCLA, he never signed a letter of intent to play there. He never gave away his recruiting rights and embroiled himself in that mess. He only signed a financial aid agreement that contained full scholarship guarantees. Scholarship guarantees that effectively offered the same benefits a letter of intent did that athletes like him wanted, but without the harmful punitive language. That would later free Smith to back out of his commitment to UCLA as he had no outstanding ties to the Bruins, and eventually attend Georgia where he would become college football’s top linebacker and a top 10 NFL draft pick four years later.

Until Smith’s landmark move, college programs of all shapes and sizes had routinely done this to recruits, finding ways to consistently exploit young men and women’s talents. They had always had these less stringent financial aid agreements lying in wait, they just didn’t publicize them as much. They still don’t. Smith doing this had some coin him as the “Rosa Parks of college football recruits”, and rightfully so. He wasn’t the first, but he certainly was the most famous.

What Smith did by not signing a National Letter of Intent was unprecedented. But it served him and his own interests much better than the rampant exploitation of NCAA football factories. He was looking out for his future. A long term perspective more players across the board should be taking.

You might be wondering: why did Smith back out of his word and not go to UCLA after all? Why not just do what everyone else does and conform? Well, Smith being the 18-year-old he was, didn’t feel comfortable with his decision the morning after verbally committing. He didn’t feel comfortable on National Signing Day either. Sometimes these thoughts take careful thinking. At the time, he was still considering Georgia. Hruby recalled the coach and main connection that aggressively recruited Smith to UCLA, Jeff Ulbrich, would soon after leave for the NFL. Following a later urging from his high school coach, Smith’s wavering mind was then made up, and he signed a financial aid agreement with the Bulldogs. The rest is history.

If Smith had preemptively signed a National Letter of Intent while sitting on the fence, he wouldn’t have the same chance to go back on his verbal commitment. A verbal commitment is a ghostly handshake and nothing more. Because that letter wholeheartedly commits a recruit to a school, not a coach. A player could be courted by a main attraction coach he falls in love with, the only reason he attends that school, that coach could leave, and the player still has to stay tied to the school because of consequences from the agreement. Everyone is allowed to stretch the lines of the rules with so much power. Except 18 and 19-year-old kids that is.

Perhaps if Smith ended up actually going to UCLA despite his reserved feelings after having signed a letter, we might not be having this conversation given how his amateur career panned out.

Which brings us to the present day.

The Bears have continually insisted they don’t want to set a precedent in negotiations with Smith. Yet according to the past, the young man they’re negotiating with appears to want to do nothing but set a new precedent. There’s been a lot of media battles and fervor released with subtlety from the Bears and Smith and his representation in Creative Artist Agency Football in the past few weeks. A sign of stubborn desperation, if there ever was one.

What’s been lost in this slap-fighting, is how ambiguous everything deliberately is. Matt Nagy curiously hasn’t had any updates on Smith’s situation for the entirety of the Bears’ stay in Bourbonnais ... except for when he chose to leak that negotiations with Smith were related to the NFL’s helmet rule with absolutely no clarification on the matter.

When that didn’t work as planned, the Bears then chose to further put on the onus on Smith, saying they were past the helmet rule impasse (it was never wholly about that), and refocused the conversation onto the player. This time, they said the latest roadblock was about behavioral issues related to guaranteed money in contract language.

Naturally, the organization didn’t provide much clarification on what this specifically meant either. They counted on the conversation shifting negatively towards Smith and knew they didn’t have to clarify a new development because their battle would be fought for them once they released these snippets of information. They counted on a seamless jump to conclusions. They maintained a blatant public ignorance and innocence for their motivations. Much like colleges in the NCAA maintained a public ignorance about more favorable agreements for recruits.

What if, just maybe, what Smith and his representation are fighting for is against something inherently exploitative that previous hosts of NFL rookies have accepted in their contracts? And he’s the one finally making a stand against the far more domineering entity, just like he did in that Macon County gym years ago.

It’s not a stretch to think that whatever Smith is contesting is wholly related to improved players’ rights and setting a new standard for everyone in their favor. This entire holdout nonsense doesn’t look like it’s “just business” slanted against the player as it always is. If history tells us anything, it’s Smith’s battle for a crucial labor victory. One that that history from a younger version of himself says he’s determined to win.

Robert is a writer, producer, and editor for Windy City Gridiron, The Rock River Times, The Athletic Chicago and a host of other fine places. Follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.