Players skipping bowl games? It’s a toss up

It is seldom that I am not committed to a stand on an issue that leads me to either share my thoughts on Facebook or writing about it in a column.

I am intrigued with the idea of players choosing not to play in their teams’ perspective bowl games. While I want to come down hard on these guys for making a selfish decision, I find myself thinking of the money the school has made on said athlete and believing he is within his rights to choose to end his season one game early.

Very early in my coaching career I remember reading about how you had to approach athletes differently because you could no longer sell them on the idea of team first and doing what is best for the team. I scoffed at the idea at the time because I had always believed in that culture, but now in every level of sports it has become obvious that this is the thinking.

While players may have thought of sitting out before, it became a reality after the 2016 Fiesta Bowl and one of the best players in the game went down with a significant injury that affected his draft status. Jaylon Smith, a linebacker for Notre Dame and the Butkus award winner as the best linebacker in the country, tore both his ACL and MCL in the game against Ohio State.

Smith had been projected as an early first round draft pick, but after the injury he slipped to the second round and had to sit out his entire first season because of nerve damage in the knee. Smith is finally rounding into the player pro scouts saw before the injury, but it is unlikely he will ever recoup the money lost by the injury.

“I was going to be a top-three pick, and having that severe injury, dropping out of the first round and losing double digit millions of dollars because of that, it forced guys to think about [skipping bowl games],” Smith said in an interview with Sports Illustrated.

Based on the Smith injury, the 2017 bowl season provided the first example of the scales tippng in favor of the individual over the team came in 2016 when LSU running back Leonard Fournette of LSU bypassed the Tigers’ bowl game to concentrate on his preparation for the NFL draft. Days later Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey headed down the same path.

Michigan tight end Jake Butt tore his ACL for a second time while getting ready for the Wolverines’ bowl game soon afterwards. Butt shared his feeling about skipping bowl games with Sports Illustrated. “There are a lot of people who question these kids and say, Hey you are getting a free education, you need to go out there and take the field for your school,” he says. “But you can look at stories like me and Jaylon and realize that is not the case. You have to do what is best for you. A lot of the kids sitting out are in a position to change their lives, their family’s lives, and their future family’s lives. In college you are playing for free, for the love of the game and for your teammate. What happened to Jaylon and me, it brings to light some of the decisions these college players go through. this is going to be their first big life decision. Am I playing in this bowl game or not? Because that can really affect your future.”

As the 2018 bowl season approaches, 10 bowl-bound players have declared they will be skipping their upcoming bowl games. The biggest name to announce was the last one, West Virginia quarterback Will Grier.

Grier trailed only Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins and Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray of Oklahoma in touchdown passes thrown during the 2018 season. Grier’s departure will likely have more impact on his team than any previous player who decided not to play in a bowl game.

I was listening to sports talk radio a couple of days ago and one of the hosts, a former college quarterback, said he expected Grier’s decision did not play well in the Mountaineer locker room. He said he would ask Grier what made him more special than any other player that might get hurt in the game.

Whether it makes him more special or not is left to the individual, but Grier is married with a two-year old daughter. Does Grier’s need to take care of his family financially with a healthy pro contract give him the right to walk on his team before the bowl game?

So, Grier is deciding to bypass the Camping Bowl against Syracuse, a game that allows the fan base to enjoy a winter break in Orlando, but has little bearing on West Virginia’s final rankings. Does the scholarship that the school gave Grier require him to play in a meaningless bowl game?

Ezekiel Elliott, now a teammate with Smith on the Dallas Cowboys, was his opponent that night in the Fiesta Bowl. Elliott said playing in the bowl game was important to him. “All these young guys deciding to skip their bowl games. I would do anything to play one more time with my brothers in that scarlet and gray.”

When you are in the locker room, you want players to put other players before themselves. Teaching them to think in that way is a good life lesson, but at what point do players have the right to choose their future over a meaningless bowl game?

Speaking of meaningless games, that’s the subject for another column.

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