College football’s bowl season is upon us, raising the question: If the RoofClaim.com Boca Raton Bowl ceased to exist, would anyone notice? But occasionally these games produce news that deserves attention — such as when Missouri head coach Eli Drinkwitz benched his star player for the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl on Wednesday.
Drinkwitz was not punishing Tyler Badie, who this season rushed for 1,604 yards, scored 18 touchdowns and was named to the All-SEC team. Just the opposite: He was looking out for his best interests.
Badie stands to reap a handsome windfall by entering the NFL draft. An injury, however, could derail that prospect. Drinkwitz refuses to take that risk. He thinks protecting his player is more important than winning a bowl game. “If you truly value your team like they’re your own sons,” he told reporters, “sometimes you look at things a little bit differently.”
Badie is not the only standout player who will be watching his team’s bowl game rather than participating. Texas A&M had to withdraw from the Gator Bowl after several starters opted out and others contracted COVID-19. Two Penn State linebackers are skipping their bowl, as are two SMU wide receivers. At least three Oklahoma starters will not be starting or finishing the Alamo Bowl.
Not all coaches approve of this trend. Mississippi State’s Mike Leach fumed, “It’s one of the biggest absurdities that I’ve seen, and it’s selfish, too.” You may remember Leach as the Texas Tech head coach fired after being accused of abuse by a player who selfishly made himself unavailable by sustaining a concussion.
It hasn’t been long that players have had the nerve to look out for themselves rather than take uncompensated risks in meaningless games. In 2016, LSU running back Leonard Fournette and Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey provoked criticism by sitting out their bowl games. Both went early in the first round of the 2017 NFL draft, and the combined value of their contracts was $73 million. They also have gone on to success, and more riches, as pros.
Their story is different from that of Jaylon Smith, whose example they doubtless had in mind. A second-team All-American linebacker at Notre Dame, he was in line for the same sort of windfall — until he tore up his knee in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl. He fell to the second round of that year’s draft, costing him upward of $16 million.
If coaches want their best players to take the field for bowl games, they could persuade their university presidents to buy insurance policies to make up any financial losses resulting from injuries. Or they could use their own immense fortunes to do the same. But for some reason, they don’t.
It’s not as though the missed bowls matter. At one time, being invited to play in a bowl game was something special. Today, it’s not really an honor; it’s more of a disgrace not to make one. Nowadays, the chance to play on TV is not much of a lure, because the vast majority of regular season games are on TV.
If a college football player from 1970 came out of a 51-year coma, he would be astonished by the proliferation of post-season contests. Back then, there were 11 bowls. This year, 44 were scheduled. Why would a sensible young man jeopardize his livelihood for the sponsors of the Union Home Mortgage Gasparilla Bowl?
It’s also not as though the games won’t be played — at least in a nonpandemic year. Most athletes are willing to play in bowls because 1) playing football is what they enrolled to do, 2) they feel an obligation to their coaches and teammates, or 3) it will give them a chance to impress their own coaches (for those who will be back next season) or NFL scouts (for those who are entering the draft).
Every player who pulls out of a bowl game creates an opportunity for another one to take the field instead of riding the bench. For reserves who get little if any playing time, the no-shows are an opportunity they otherwise wouldn’t get.
Anyone who has a shot at getting an NFL contract has already helped his university reap huge sums of money and has good reason, at the close of his college career, to put his own interests first. True, there’s no “I” in “team.” But there are two in “millions.”
Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @SteveChapman13.