I'm not normally one to harp on the word choices of college football coaches, but every so often a verb leaps out and thrashes you like an Oklahoma drill, which is how I felt the other day, when Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher trotted out a peculiar verb to characterize his interactions with ex-Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson.
"We're negotiating," Fisher said, and let us ignore, at least for the moment, the inherent irony of this word being used by the coach of a program whose previous quarterback had a way of "negotiating" for crustacean appendages from local supermarkets; and let us ignore, at least for now, that this is the same program that once became famous for "negotiating" for complimentary apparel from shopping-mall footwear outlets. Even if Fisher were somehow offering cash on the barrelhead for Golson's services, he's obviously not dumb enough to admit it; I realize he was probably referring to "negotiations" about playing time, about whether Golson would potentially be guaranteed the starting quarterback job at Florida State next season.
But even if that's the case, it's still a remarkable admission. I can't think of a quarterback sweepstakes in college football that has drawn quite the attention of this one; I can't think of a time I've ever heard a college football coach evoke the word "negotiate" openly and publicly, and as skeevy as it feels, it may ultimately be a sign of progress, another way of pushing for the rights of student-athletes who have traditionally had little or no say over their own fates.
Golson, of course, is making use of a rule put in place in 2006 that gives student-athletes the right to transfer to another program for postgraduate work (and not be forced to sit out a season, as is the case with traditional transfers), as long as the school they're currently attending doesn't have a program in the area of study they choose. It is a rule with solid intentions behind it – as a reward for players who graduate on time, as a way to expand the academic possibilities for athletes with a legitimate interest in getting a master's degree – but as with everything else is college sports, it is being stretched to its free-agent limit, never in more high-profile fashion than the way Golson's using it right now. As of this week, there are a handful of competing schools on Golson's list, and he appears to be playing them off against each other, seeking out the best deal for himself as he looks to improve his NFL prospects.
It's possible this will work for Golson in the way it did for Russell Wilson, who transferred from N.C. State to Wisconsin his final season and wound up as one of the top prospects in the draft. But Wilson's transfer was low-key by comparison. What Golson has done is recognize the leverage he has. There are several Southeastern Conference programs (as well as Florida State) in need of quarterback help next season, and Golson is using that to leverage the best possible deal.
In a sport that theoretically doesn't even have a marketplace, Golson has managed to create one for himself. That's why the word "negotiate" felt so freighted with meaning: Because it was an admission by one of the highest-profile coaches in the sport that there is, at the very least, a tacit marketplace for talent.
What does this mean for college football? It means that they'll probably find a way to change the rule. Bob Bowlsby, the Big 12 commissioner, said it "smacks of hired gun;" the Sun Belt's Karl Benson said he doesn't "think it fits into the core values of intercollegiate athletics." But the thing people like Benson are still reluctant to admit, in the wake of the Ed O'Bannon lawsuit, is that college football can no longer stand still. And the most worrisome consequence of the graduate transfer rule, in the mind of people like Benson and Bowlsby, is that it puts the power in the hands of Golson.
"I'm not making the decision," Fisher said, and this is the kind of language you don't hear college football coaches use very often, either. But it's a different world, and unwittingly or not, Everett Golson, in shopping for the best deal, may be doing his part to push for progress.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb