Money, Grit, and Opting Out of Bowl Games

For the second time in two years, the Stanford football team will enter the Sun Bowl without their starting running back. Christian McCaffrey started this trend when he sat out of the Sun Bowl in 2016. Bryce Love will now abstain from this year’s Sun Bowl, leaving his teammates to finish their careers without him.

The Michigan Wolverines (#7 in the nation) will head to Georgia to play the Florida Gators (#10) in the Peach Bowl on December 29. It was looking to be a classic matchup of top tier teams. Unfortunately, the Wolverines will also be without their starting running back, Karan Higdon, and two essential components of their once-dominant defense: defensive lineman Rashan Gary, and inside linebacker Devin Bush.

Greedy Williams (actual name) will sit out of the Fiesta Bowl when his former LSU Tigers take on a UCF team who is currently on the nation’s longest winning streak.

Opting out of bowl games is becoming a trend.

Debate regarding whether or not these young men should play their final games often includes “how important” the bowl game is perceived to be. With a shot at a National Championship, no one from Oklahoma, Notre Dame, Clemson, or Alabama is sitting out of the College Football Playoff.

Ohio State’s Dre’Mont Jones was reportedly on the fence regarding whether or not he’d play in the Rose Bowl. He’s in.

Will Grier’s West Virginia Mountaineers flirted with a shot at the championship multiple times this season but when they ended up in the Camping World Bowl instead of something “bigger”, he opted to forego his final game and begin working on his NFL career.

The media plays a part in determining the significance of bowl games. Outside of the CFP, historic games like the Rose Bowl and the Sugar Bowl still receive massive coverage and high levels of engagement. But many dismiss the Dollar General Bowl, for instance, as laughable, until they realize that the game comes with a $1.5million payout to participating teams.

So where do we draw the line? Should a prospect play in the Peach Bowl, but not the Hawaii Bowl? We would have to establish legitimate criteria which weighs the value of the Citrus Bowl against the Gator Bowl against the Birmingham Bowl. Some believe the National Championship is the only important post-season outcome. If that mindset continues, it is easy to imagine a scenario wherein players like Greedy Williams and Bryce Love would have packed it in weeks ago, when it was clear that their team would not end up in the final four. It’s a slippery slope.

All of this raises important questions regarding what it means to play college football.

Is NCAA football a farm system for the NFL? Or is NCAA football the platform of an educational experience?

The NCAA identifies its purpose clearly, including their intention to create an atmosphere where students are “balancing their academic, social and athletics experiences.” Without evaluating whether or not the NCAA abides its own standard, it should be assumed that the outcomes of a college football experience should last these players long into their post-collegiate careers.

It would be reckless to ignore the fact that the average NFL career is 3.3 seasons. The average for running backs is even lower (2.57 years). Bryce Love is on the path to a successful NFL career, but if he falls in line with the statistics, his time at Stanford should have prepared him for life after football. Which again, for NFL running backs, comes around age 24. By then he will have made plenty of money, sure. And money is the primary argument of media pundits (like Dominique Foxworth) who support opting-out of bowl games. But will he have the tools to live a successful, happy life?

Research out of Harvard University indicates that the relationship of money to happiness is weaker than many ever thought. The signing bonus that some of these young men receive will do little to predict lifelong happiness, much less mental health, positive relationships, and other wellness concerns that would indicate a successful life.

Regarding career satisfaction, income over a lifetime, healthy relationships and positive affect, character staples like conscientiousness and grit have been well-documented predictors of success. Finishing what one started is an essential component of those qualities.

If coaches bend to the immediate persuasions of their players instead of creating cultures replete with explicit standards in the players’ best interest, then they are setting them up to fail. Coaches, this is on us.

Media is on the hook as well. Instead of prioritizing the vast sums of money that these impressionable young men have on the line, we should prioritize character and ethics. Instead of covering only the College Football Playoff, let’s acknowledge all the great football still being played. Baylor and Vanderbilt played one of the best games of the year in the Texas Bowl on December 27th. Let’s shine a light on that, and celebrate the players who saw their careers through to the end.

There are certainly circumstances when sitting out of a bowl game and prioritizing an NFL career might be the right choice for a player and his family. For example, there would be no reason to rush back from injury.

But more often than not, the month of preparation and final four quarters spent with one’s football family might be the last educational experience of these young men’s lives. In the NFL, motives change.

We should keep that in mind as we consider expanding the CFP to 8 teams or more. The larger the playoff pool, the less meaning (determined by media coverage, payouts, public opinion) will be placed on the rest of the bowl games. If we place less emphasis on bowl games, we will have more top prospects sitting out of them. If we expect players to finish what they started, we should honor their efforts in well-considered ways. The structure of the system will determine the attitudes it creates.

And as we consider the risk of participation in postseason games, let’s take a moment to remember Jaylon Smith. This whole trend began when Smith was injured in a 2016 Fiesta Bowl matchup as his Notre Dame Fighting Irish took on Ohio State. Originally reported to be a top 3 draft pick, Smith’s injury knocked him out of the first round, to 34th overall.

When asked about whether or not he would go back and change his decision to play that day, Smith, who is now playing for the NFC East champion Dallas Cowboys, said via Twitter, “Honestly. With Everything I’ve been through, If [sic] I could go back to Jan. 1st I’d play again.”

It’s that attitude that has brought Smith back from injury and cemented his role in one of the NFL’s top defenses. It’s an attitude shared by Dre’Mont Jones, mentioned earlier, who claims he never truly considered skipping his finial opportunity to suit up with Ohio State.

“I want to finish what I started,” said Jones. That’s grit. That’s a teammate. That’s what college football should be.

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