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Opting Out Is Part of the College Football Lesson Plan

“Don’t bitch about the kids; they’re the only ones we’ve got.”  –Hall of Fame Penn State Coach Rip Engle

This past bowl season saw much hand wringing about the current state of college football, much of it centered on players “opting-out” of bowl games to protect their pro careers. And it’s not just lower-tier bowls anymore. It’s reached games as far up the food chain as the Rose Bowl.

Fans, coaches and media covering college football can gripe all we want, but we’ve all had a hand in creating what college football has become. Young people learn from adults. And as it relates to college football we’ve set out an obvious lesson plan. 

So, what might the subjects of our college football internship lesson plan look like?

Section 1: Money Is King

There are a lot of people still preaching school and team loyalty and espousing the amateur athletics model. But players aren’t the only ones opting out for greener pastures. Coaches are doing it too and it’s all about money.

“Children learn more from what you are than from what you teach.” —W.E.B. Dubois

Television contracts are immense. And that money flows into big contracts for coaches, administrators and athletic directors. At Power 5 schools, the head coach’s salary alone can dwarf the team’s entire player scholarship budget (85 scholarships at $50,000 a year for room, board, books and tuition comes to $4.25 million). 

Those contract negotiations, demands and terms are much more public than in the past. Players and their families are paying attention.

The emphasis coaches, athletic directors and media place on dollars shows players that money is king. It is only natural that players, the biggest risk-takers, believe they should be getting a cut.

Players are being asked to travel and play on Thursdays, Fridays or Saturdays in games being played anywhere from 11 a.m. through late at night. And universities are addicted to TV money now far more than ever before. Those giant, billion-dollar TV contracts allow networks to dictate when and where games and bowls are played.

Those advocating for an expanded playoff field will be asking players to play 16 or 17 games to win a national title. Don’t bet that expanded playoffs will be so readily accepted by players who will be asked to play more games to generate more money for others’ pockets.

And we haven’t even started talking about the name, image and likeness issue, which is another topic for another column.

Players know that no one tunes in to watch coaches. They tune in to see the players play. And during those broadcasts we hear a lot about the potential pro players on the field which brings us to lesson number 2.

Section 2: NFL Futures

During games announcers discuss players’ draft ratings for the NFL. It is part of the narrative of every college game broadcast and every pre-game preview show. How will this big-time NFL prospect fare against the big-time NFL prospect across from him? 

But it goes much deeper than that. 

From the first moment players show an extraordinary talent to run, pass, catch, tackle or block adults gravitate toward them. They start to dream of future NFL careers complete with massive paychecks. 

When it comes time for college football coaches to recruit them, they sell visions of three-and- done college stints that lead to lucrative NFL careers. Most 16- or 17-year-old football players readily believe the hype. It is the nature of who they are and where they are in their development mentally. Many of them have been told from an early age that they are marked for greatness on the gridiron. And who doesn’t want to believe that?

Recruiting services, college coaches and the hangers-on paint visions of an easy path toward the type of future that so many have dreamt about. It is part of the recruiting pitch, and in many cases, it is front and center in the case being made by one school over another. The path to the NFL will be so easy if only you come to our school.

Section 3: Recruiting for an NFL Internship

If you repeatedly sell NFL hype, guess what value you’ve placed on college careers? You’ve sold college football as an internship program for the NFL. And as it relates to a bowl game, once a player feels he’s mastered that internship program, why would he stick around for an optional assignment that might lead to an injury that could hurt his grade?

Put it this way: If your internship grade before graduation was an “A” and you had the opportunity to take one last quiz that could only lower your grade significantly, would you take that test? Most of us know how we would’ve answered that question when we were 20-years-old.

So, when exhibit A of your recruiting sales pitch emphasizes the NFL, don’t be surprised when players buy it.

We sold it, they bought it and now we have seller’s remorse because we want them to stick around. All so they can help their schools win an exhibition football game designed to create holiday season TV content that is an advertising vehicle full of corporate sponsors, tourism ads and product placement.

Section 4: The Era of Professionalism

The bowl system is a microcosm of the college system. Schools get money, networks get money and coaches get six-figure bowl bonuses. What does a player get for taking the bowl risk? Some cool sweats, some bowl gifts, a trip to some place and a per diem check that nets around $250. Yes, they get to play football in a bowl game. But many make a value judgment that risking injury for the team is simply not worth the personal risk to their careers.

The game has been professionalized by universities, coaches, widespread legalized sports gambling and college football media. As players evaluate their college football careers through the lens of a “business decision,” they are only reacting to the place where we, as a society, have taken the game.

Section 5: Conclusion

College football is part of our American educational institutions. The lessons taught in those classrooms are designed to get students ready for life and for a career. College football has set out a very distinct lesson plan. And now that the players have learned the lesson and acted upon what we’ve told them, can we really blame them?