New Year’s Day began with ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit uttering a line on College GameDay that would echo for hours, with the blowback becoming deafening as unfortunate events unfolded hours later in New Orleans.
"I think this era of player just doesn't love football,” Herbstreit said, in discussing players opting out of bowl games to protect their bodies from injury and thus protect their professional futures. Fellow analyst Desmond Howard opined that today’s players have “a sense of entitlement." Two of the highest-paid men in the college athletics broadcast space suggested that the kids these days, they’re cheating the billion-dollar enterprise that is just now beginning to compensate them for a fraction of their worth.
Herbstreit subsequently amplified on his comments, both on-air and on Twitter. “Of course some players love the game the same today as ever. But some don’t. I’ll always love the players of this game and sorry if people thought I generalized or lumped them all into one category.”
Less than 12 hours later, star Mississippi quarterback Matt Corral was on crutches in the Superdome with an ankle injury suffered in the Sugar Bowl—a game it would've been quite understandable if he'd skipped, given his high draft status, but that he wanted to play. The extent of the injury was unclear Saturday night in terms of long-term damage, though Lane Kiffin announced an X-ray came back negative. Hopefully it's nothing that compromises Corral’s ability to work out or perform for scouts in the coming months.
Anyone who has seen Corral play would say he loves football. But he would have had that passion questioned if he’d chosen to sit out the Sugar Bowl. He also would have entered the next chapter of his career without a limp.
On a day when the leading voice in the sport criticized players for opting out of bowl games, a top-10 Heisman Trophy vote-getter and potential first-round NFL draft pick showed the world why players skip them. Because sometimes players end up on crutches and in tears on the sidelines. Depending on the severity of the injury, Corral could be the next cautionary tale.
Players already have heard about Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith shredding a knee in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl and falling out of the first round of the draft. They’ve heard about Michigan tight end Jake Butt suffering a similar knee injury a year later in the Orange Bowl. They’ve seen enough bad things happen in games that become more irrelevant every year.
Butt, who retired from the NFL last summer after an abbreviated career, appeared just a couple of weeks ago on a Detroit-based podcast to discuss players opting out of bowl games. He said he didn’t regret his decision to play in the Orange Bowl, but added, “When you’re staring down the barrel and you have four, five, 10-plus million dollars waiting for you … I can’t knock a guy for sitting out.”
But some in the sport still do knock guys for sitting out. And the tone-deaf part of that is the sport’s own role in reducing bowl games to risky, inconsequential sideshows. The people in charge have done the damage, not the players who opt out.
For years, coaches have fled one job for another and dumped bowl obligations along the way. That trend has only accelerated as the hiring-and-firing cycle has encroached further into the regular season. The early signing period, implemented a few years ago, has become the most important event in December for non-playoff teams—that’s why the new coach has to be in place as soon as possible, and that’s why the bowl coaching duties are passed off to an interim guy.
So if the schools don’t care about the bowls, and the coaches don’t care about the bowls, explain to me why the aspiring NFL players who take on all the injury risk are supposed to care?
As Jason Gay of the Wall Street Journal astutely and acidly pointed out Saturday , ESPN has done plenty to devalue the bowls it broadcasts. The network broadcasts the College Football Playoff, which has dwarfed the rest of the postseason. It also has been vital in hyping the NFL scouting combine and pro days, creating months of draft-related programming and billing it all as vital steps toward players’ future prospects.
This is part and parcel of a system so bloated on greed and excess that it cannot even recognize its own double standards. We needed 40-plus bowl games because ESPN wanted the TV inventory and schools wanted the payouts and coaches wanted the bonuses. But we also needed a Playoff because it would create scads of new revenue on top of the bowls. And that new revenue is necessary to build every imaginable facility and employ small armies of staff while paying the head coach $90 million over 10 years—and at a salary like that, he’s got to get to work and can’t be bothered finishing a season in the Valero Alamo Bowl, sorry.
Excess is also what puts Herbstreit into such on-air ubiquity that it dramatically increases his opportunities to say something regrettable. His current schedule is just stupid, yet ESPN is celebrating it: GameDay and the Orange Bowl in South Florida Friday, an overnight flight to California for more GameDay and the Rose Bowl Saturday, and then an NFL/CFP championship game double-dip the following weekend.
I like Herbstreit personally, and he’s a great part of college football. But is he so invaluable that he had to do two on-site studio shows and two games in a span of less than 36 hours on two different coasts? That’s just nonsensical, and yet it’s accepted practice. It can be hard to articulate well on live TV when exhausted.
I don’t know if more rest would have saved Herbstreit from himself Saturday. But the days of vilifying college football players for not participating in games that have never mattered less should be over.
In a sport with a better postseason—an expanded Playoff—there would be more relevant games and higher participation by the best players. The power brokers in charge only have themselves to blame for coming up with the badly flawed current system. Don’t blame the players for not buying into it.
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