Dabo Swinney, head coach of the Clemson Tigers.
Photo: Michael Zagaris/Getty Images
It is an understood principle of organized sports that if you play for a team that wins a championship — even if you were not actually playing while they won the championship — you get a championship ring. Championship rings are silly (they are outrageously ugly, first off; this Lakers monstrosity from 2002 looks like an Illuminati decoder ring), but they are ostensibly the goal of athletic endeavor. They are supposed to be why you play.
And everybody gets one. Nomar Garciaparra got one for the 2004 Red Sox even though he was traded to the Cubs midseason, ruining Jimmy Fallon’s one good Saturday Night Live character; Colby Rasmus got one for the 2011 Cardinals even though trading him is essentially why that team won the World Series; a man named Sergio Kindle notched one measly tackle in one measly game for the Ravens back in 2012, and he got one. I have an associate whose old job was essentially washing the jockstraps of the 2006 Cardinals, and he got one. The joy of a championship makes one so jolly that eventually you’re giving rings out at the holidays like fruitcakes.
Which is why it was so shocking last week when Dabo Swinney, head coach of defending college football champion Clemson, announced that Kelly Bryant — who started four games for the Tigers last year, including a key 28-26 road victory over Texas A&M in which he threw for a touchdown and ran for another — would not be receiving a championship ring. The reason: After losing the starting job to freshman phenom Trevor Lawrence, Bryant — who had graduated from college and therefore could sit out the rest of the season and have one more year of eligibility in 2019 for another team — left the team and transferred to Missouri.
At the time, both team and player seemed simpatico. But when Clemson went on and won a title behind Lawrence, Swinney purposefully kept a ring from Bryant when they were handed out in the fall. His reasoning was as simple as it was purposefully ignorant of decades of precedent: “He wasn’t on the team.” But this of course ignored the fact that the only autonomy Bryant had — the only autonomy he has ever had — was in leaving the team when Swinney decided not start him. If Bryant wanted to showcase his skills for the NFL, he had to leave Clemson. More to the point: If he ever wanted to make any money for the thing he has dedicated his entire life to, he had no choice but to leave. For this, Swinney has banished him. Maybe if he’d hung around and cleaned the jocks …
As another season of college football begins — the first game, between Miami and Florida, is just ten days away, and this resident of Athens, Georgia, has been hearing Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart screaming expletives at the teenagers under Smart’s supervision on his morning run for weeks now — it is worth remembering just how increasingly difficult it can be to jump through all the ethical hoops necessary to remain a fan of the sport. And there’s no better example why this is so than Dabo Swinney.
Swinney is the toast of college football right now, the man whose Tigers have won two championships in three seasons and who wiped out hated Nick Saban and Alabama 44-16 in the college football playoff title game in January. Swinney is often seen as an affable contrast to the humorless intensity of Saban (and Smart, Saban’s protégé), a former real-estate agent and devout Christian whose homespun style and easy way with a microphone has led him to be a longtime favorite of the college football press. But as he has grown more successful, and the game he coaches has become even more of a multibillion-dollar enterprise, that folksiness has taken on a darker tone. Because the way you succeed in college athletics is by wielding power. And no one has more power than Swinney. But unlike, say, Kentucky college basketball coach John Calipari, who has used this power to advocate for players and increased compensation, Swinney is as retrograde as Bear Bryant. And he is truly the face of his sport now.
When Swinney won the national championship game in January, he was awarded more than $2 million in bonuses for the 2019 season in addition to the $6.8 million salary he’d already earned — a salary that jumped considerably when he signed a ten-year, $92 million contract after the season. That is a fortune he has made on the backs of his unpaid players. To be an FBS college football coach is to reap the harvest of an unjust system, but Swinney has gone beyond merely being complicit in this system. Instead, he has chosen to forcefully advocate for it. He has said he will quit college football entirely if players get paid, saying that, “as far as paying players, professionalizing college athletics, that’s where you lose me. I’ll go do something else, because there’s enough entitlement in this world as it is.” (He brazenly reiterated this stance after signing that new contract.) He has fought against players receiving stipends in addition to their scholarships. When Northwestern football players attempted to unionize a few years ago, he was one of the loudest voices in opposition.
Swinney’s stances against player autonomy, in both college and professional sports, are legendary. He criticized Colin Kaepernick’s protest, saying that “it’s not good to use the team as a platform” and that “two wrongs don’t make a right” while citing Martin Luther King Jr., something he later had to apologize for. He claimed players don’t pretend they have concussions to stay on the field and that football is “safer than it has ever been.” (Both statements are false.) He once kicked a player off his team — and thus out of college — for “having a bad attitude.” He doesn’t tolerate cursing at his practices. Oh, and remember the Clemson football team’s visit to the White House during the government shutdown, when President Trump gave out all that fast food? The Root reported that while most of Clemson’s black players did not attend, the ones who did go did so because they feared Swinney would punish them otherwise. (Swinney denied this, as did several players.)
Swinney’s unsavoriness goes beyond seeking to maintain his own power and profits. He has said America doesn’t have a “race problem, it has a sin problem.” In 2016, he refused to investigate an allegation that Clemson players had used racial slurs against South Carolina players, saying he could forgive college students for making mistakes but not media for reporting on them. (He actually said that the reporters who published the allegations should have been fired.) He has said that activists should “move to another country.” He even once called himself “Osama bin Dabo,” which is sort of offensive but mostly just weird.
College football is a sport that brings in more than a billion dollars a year and one that is under increased public pressure to bring at least some of that money closer to the players who are putting their minds and bodies on the line for free each week. So far, that money is just going to the middle-aged, mostly white men ordering them around: Clemson itself has three assistants who make more than $1 million a year. In a sign of just how imbalanced this has become, for the first time, in 2018, college athletic spending for coaches outpaced spending on scholarships. It is the sort of factoid that gives up the game.
Sure, it was fun to watch Clemson run all over Alabama in the national title game last year. Nick Saban is such a notorious villain at this point that it was undeniably pleasant to see him have to eat it a little bit. But it is worth noting: Of the two coaches on the field that night, Saban is the one who believes it’s unfair not to pay college players, not Swinney. Whom are we supposed to be rooting against, again?
Clemson comes into the 2019 season as the No. 1 ranked team in the country. There are several reasons for this, but the primary one is Trevor Lawrence, the long-haired, goofy, otherworldly talented quarterback who took Bryant’s job at midseason. He is only a sophomore, which means he has two more seasons as a Tiger, according to NFL draft rules. If he were eligible for the draft right now, there is no question he would be the top overall pick. But he isn’t, so he has to put tens of millions of future dollars on the line for 12 or more Saturdays next season, and then again the season after. If he suffers a career-ending injury at any point in the next two years, he will never earn a dime as a professional athlete. But he has to play anyway. Someone has to make money for Dabo Swinney. Someone has to make sure Dabo doesn’t quit college football. Someone has to keep minting those rings.