By Andrew Tan
It’s all conjecture at this point, but Kyler Murray’s decision to declare for the 2019 NFL Draft after he struck his best Heisman pose — accounting for over 5,000 total yards and more than 50 touchdowns — has obscured his intentions for a career in professional sports. The question now stands: Will Murray be throwing passes in the NFL as a starting quarterback or throwing his life away by choosing a career in baseball?
Before the start of college football, Murray’s mind seemed made up. Drafted by the Oakland Athletics with the ninth overall pick of the 2018 MLB Draft, Murray would commit to play one year as the starting quarterback for Oklahoma — he was previously the backup to fellow Heisman-winning QB, Baker Mayfield — before beginning his career as a professional baseball player.
Oakland and the brain trust that is its front office (looking at you, Billy Beane) were well aware of Murray’s talent going into the season and took a calculated risk to draft him inside the top 10 of the draft. Put simply, the A’s didn’t think he would be this good at football. I don’t know if anyone did. (Well, maybe Kliff Kingsbury did.) Now, experts on the NFL draft have labelled Murray anywhere from a top-five to late first-round pick pending combine results. Still, Murray has not committed fully to either sport and still plans to attend Spring Training in February at the moment.
So Murray’s tentative preseason commitment to baseball coupled with his historic Heisman season leaves us with this current predicament: baseball or football? Certainly, this is a very privileged decision to even have the opportunity to make, and Murray will stand to make a truckload of money either way. But where would his talents be maximized, and more importantly what is in his best interests?
When considering such a choice, Murray’s passion reigns supreme. If he enjoys baseball more, then he should strap on his batting gloves and take to the diamond. If it’s football that he prefers, then he should go sling the pigskin for whatever miserable or, hopefully for Murray’s sake, somewhat competent franchise that drafts him. The following points are meant to be taken assuming he does not have a strong preference one way or the other. The worst decision he could make would be one that he regrets purely for love of the other sport.
Also, playing both sports is quite simply not a serious option in Murray’s case because of the demands of the quarterback position. Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders had some success double-dipping, but neither had to play the most difficult position in American team sports.
But enough tiptoeing around the question. What should Murray do? When taking all relevant factors into consideration, it’s a tough choice, but in my opinion, Murray should choose football. More specifically, Kyler Murray should follow his aspirations to be an NFL quarterback, the face of a franchise, a darling of American sports or, even in a potential worse-case scenario, the source of endless ridicule, a la Brock Osweiler, who makes $37 million to not play football.
Let’s look at Murray’s situation from all angles to understand why it’s in his best interest to play NFL football. First, the $100 million elephant in the room: money. Under his current contract with the A’s, which he signed after being drafted last year, he is guaranteed $4.66 million — this is the money he gets just for signing with Oakland! If Murray decides to sign with an NFL team as a quarterback, he will have to return this signing bonus to the A’s. But then again, Lamar Jackson’s rookie contract is worth up to $9.5 million, with $8 million guaranteed, and he was the last pick of the first round. If he bolsters his draft stock in the NFL Combine enough to be drafted in the top 10, Murray could earn double to triple that.
Murray could earn a lot more money out of the gate with an NFL career but the benefit of MLB contracts is that they are fully guaranteed and several years longer than NFL contracts. An MLB contract is thus much safer because you could get injured or end up a bum on the streets, like Pablo Sandoval in his brief tenure with Boston Red Sox, and still be raking in cash. Though similar situations exist in the NFL, there are tons of built-in exemptions for injuries, playing time and off-the-field incidents that prevent players from reaping the full rewards of their contract.
The money would then seem to favor baseball with its longer contracts and higher potential to earn exorbitant dollars — consider Bryce Harper being tabbed by some for a 10-year, over $300-million contract this year! However, the position Murray plays closes the gap a reasonable amount. Plus, these albatross contracts are only given to elite baseball players (or by mega-teams to crappy players), and it is unlikely that Murray’s ceiling even extends to this level.
Meanwhile, quarterbacks don’t even have to be good to swindle teams out of mega-contracts. Think Ryan Tannehill, Blake Bortles and Andy Dalton, who all make close to $20 million/year (when playing). Have one good year and Murray could be in Kirk Cousins-Derek Carr territory, closer to $30 million. Sure these contracts have much less guaranteed money and are much shorter than MLB contracts, but Murray is much more likely to sign a mega-extension after a few good years on his rookie deal than to prove himself an MLB superstar in the six years of minimum service time required before he could hit free agency in the big leagues. If Murray can’t prove himself a star or, worse, a starting-caliber player in the MLB, he could be condemned to years of futile toil in the minor leagues, never earning much more than his initial signing bonus.
Aside from fulfilling the Scrooge McDuck fantasy of filling an entire swimming pool with money, another primary motivator for young athletes is fame and sometimes notoriety. Many people would kill to be in the national spotlight, but sports stars have a real opportunity to forge a vaunted public image that they cherish as much as, if not more than, filling their pockets with green. In this category, the NFL has no competitor in terms of public recognition; along with football’s sky-high television ratings and rabid fandom comes lucrative endorsement deals and sponsorships, which provide another source of revenue.
Mega-stars like Tom Brady, Odell Beckham Jr. and Antonio Brown are constantly in commercials and other advertisements, quickly becoming household names. Mike Trout could be eating a Subway sandwich in an actual Subway establishment, and no one would recognize him. Who’s Mike Trout you ask? Exactly.
So money and fame tip in football’s favor, the latter quite apparently while the former is debatable yet more clear when considering Murray’s floor and ceiling in each sport. Why then is this a difficult question? A chorus of worried mothers cries out: BRAIN DAMAGE.
Since the importance of the brain has been better documented in recent years, concerned parents and societal leaders alike have called for the institution of a never-ending list of safety measures to protect their children from CTE and concussions. Football is far more dangerous than baseball, constantly subjecting players to broken limbs, torn ligaments but, most notably, head trauma. The issue with brain damage is that its effects extend far beyond the span of an NFL career. Could money and fame ever surmount the risks Murray would subject himself to as an NFL quarterback? My answer is yes.
The league is getting safer. To the chagrin of former NFL players and fans alike, new rules have been implemented to protect players, especially the quarterback. There’s definitely a long way to go to create the safest possible league for the players, but there is noticeable progress, particularly with officials cracking down on roughing the passer penalties. Sure, the NFL will never be as safe as the MLB while maintaining the integrity of the game, but if the NFL continues to make player safety a top priority, the risk should warrant the rich rewards Murray could reap as an NFL quarterback.
Maybe part of this decision is the fan in me who would much rather see Murray try his hand as a starting quarterback than to slog through the MLB farm system for a chance at baseball stardom. But really think about it. What would you do in Murray’s position? From an outsider’s perspective with no concept of what a million dollars looks like, maybe you could forgo the bright shine that emanates from the title “Starting Quarterback.” Murray shouldn’t have to ignore the natural draws of money and fame just to be safer and to set an example for younger kids. He earned this.
Ultimately it’s not my decision to make, and Murray will surely deliberate and take all of these factors into due consideration, but for the sake of his pockets, public image and my entertainment, I hope he chooses football.
Contact Andrew Tan at tandrew ‘at’ stanford.edu