COLLINS: Weighing pros, cons of football-or-baseball decision for PSU recruit Lonnie White

The (Scranton) Times-Tribune (TNS)
Lonnie White

Part of me wishes all of the decisions I've had to make in life were as difficult to make as the one Lonnie White Jr. is debating.

Basically, "Do I pack up my full athletic scholarship and go off to college, where I'll play football in front of 107,000 fans this fall?" Or, "Do I take more than $1 million to walk away from that and play professional baseball?"

It's not exactly an existential crisis for the two-sport standout from Coatesville. But it's a decision a handful of athletes have to make every year, and it's one Penn State and its fans had to know was coming.

When White committed to Penn State on May 7, 2020, he was one of the country's more intriguing high school receiver prospects. When he signed his letter of intent in December, he did so knowing he'd be among the players to be selected in the early rounds of last weekend's Major League Baseball amateur draft. Some pundits even ranked White as a late first-round prospect.

When an athlete commits to play big-time college football, that is usually enough to scare off any baseball club that doesn't want to buy a draft pick out of a college scholarship. But the Pittsburgh Pirates had the most bonus pool money in baseball and they weren't afraid.

They took White 64th overall, a pick with a bonus slot value of more than $1.05 million.

So he can take that and report directly to Bradenton, Florida, to start working out with the Pirates. Or, he can roll the dice on football, where Penn State will start practicing in three weeks.

There's no guess here as to what White will do, because who among us knows where his heart lies?

There's no urging here as to what he should do, because who among us are in exactly the same position?

There's just a feeling that this particular decision comes at an interesting time in history, a crossroad for both sports.

The football side: In some ways, this is the easy path to explain, because at this point, you'd be making more than a business decision if you're White.

Bottom line is, you'd have to really, really love playing football to turn down more than a million fully-guaranteed dollars with no certainty you'd ever get another shot at it. Or, you'd really, really have to put a lot of stock in not deferring a college education in favor of a life-changing financial windfall.

The bonus available to him with the Pirates — and, they can give him more than the $1.05 million, if they want — is just about the same amount the 131st overall pick in the NFL Draft, former Oklahoma State standout receiver Tylan Wallace, will get if he makes the Baltimore Ravens roster this fall.

If he doesn't, Wallace will make just around $700,000. The next receiver taken after Wallace, Jacob Harris of the Rams, was selected 10 picks later. He'll only get $500,000 if he doesn't make it in Los Angeles.

In other words, picking football with hopes of it being a better financial choice for White is a risk, considering he at least has to be an early fourth-round pick to recoup what he gave up. But, money may not be as big a factor in this case as it has been for two-sport prospects that came before him.

The recent Name, Image and Likeness laws that make it possible for athletes to essentially make brands of themselves and earn some money off their fame during their college years mean someone like White wouldn't necessarily have to pinch pennies on his way through University Park. That he'd also play baseball at Penn State could make him an even more interesting case on the NIL front.

The baseball side: The pro-football side of this debate, self-serving as it is among fans who have fall Saturdays in mind when they make this argument, is that it's difficult to make it in baseball. Which is true, to a degree.

If he chooses baseball, White will be fairly anonymous soon enough, spending his next few summers in places like Greensboro, North Carolina, and Bradenton, trying to separate himself from the others around him in the black and gold. By the time he gets to Double-A Altoona — the summer of 2024, if he's really good and develops quickly — the fact he walked away from a Penn State football scholarship will be old news.

However, making it to the major leagues as the No. 64 overall pick isn't exactly as uncommon as some would lead you to believe.

Take the 2011 through 2015 MLB drafts, the ones where the best data is available. Just over half of the 100 players selected in the range White was taken, the 61st pick through the 80th, made the big leagues.

That's actually a better success rate than the players who were selected in the 41-60 range of those drafts; 51 percent of them played at least one major league game.

If you want to look at it another way, many scouts and draftniks ranked White among the top 40 prospects available. If he was taken in that range — and had he not signed on for the Penn State scholarship, he probably would have been — those players make the bigs at about a 75 percent clip.

Bottom line is, there is no easy road to becoming a professional athlete, even for one as gifted as Lonnie White Jr. But there's certainly not an impossible one if he's not wearing blue and white this fall. With the rise in CTE concerns among football players, and guaranteed money much more prevalent in baseball, it's fair to wonder how many of these kinds of battles for talent football can win moving forward.