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Opt-Outs Are Here to Stay Unless Bowl Season Changes

Get all your anger out here.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 26 Purdue at Indiana
Durham’s choice to ply in the Senior Bowl set off a firestorm on Twitter.
Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Bowl season is all but over. There’s just one game that truly matters left. That’s the CFP Championship game on Monday that will see TCU face off against last year’s champion Georgia. For Purdue of course Bowl season ended Monday with the overwhelming loss to LSU. Purdue was without their starting QB, starting TE, starting WR, one starting OL, starting CB, and starting LB all due to the transfer portal with the exception of Jalen Graham seemingly vanishing in the night. That’s a lot to make up for. Playing without that many starters is never going to be easy. Purdue just didn’t have the bodies behind these guys to step in without missing a beat. While we always hear the expression that it’s the next man up there’s sometimes a significant drop off from one man to the next. For Purdue, that drop off was significant indeed.

There’s been a lot of decrying those who opt-out of bowl games. They’ve been called sell-outs, traitors, ungrateful, whiners, quitters, entitled, etc. etc. etc. I’ve seen numerous fans, many fans of this here site you’re reading this on, proclaim that these players should be forced to pay back their scholarship money. Or that the scholarships themselves should include language that any payment of the scholarship funds be contingent on a player playing in all games in which they are physically able to play. In other words, just trying to find language that ensures that a player has to play in the bowl game.

On one hand I understand this level of frustration. I’m obviously a huge fan of Purdue sports to include Purdue football. When I sit down in front of my TV on Saturday, or Monday for the bowl game, I want to see Purdue put in their best effort with their best squad out there. I don’t like seeing Purdue embarrassed in a bowl game as has now happened twice under a Brohm. But, and this is a big but(t), I’m taking Kim Kardashian sized, we just have to get over it. I know that’s a hard pill to swallow but the fact of the matter is this isn’t going away anytime soon.

Sure, you can point to Alabama’s players playing in a bowl game that wasn’t a CFP game despite having rather high NFL draft profiles and say that this isn’t destined to continue and you may have a point. But my counterpoint would be what happened to Purdue’s Deion Burks (who thank goodness has been released from the hospital and is said to be okay), Tua Tagovailoa, or even the terrible situation of Damar Hamlin from Monday Night Football.

Football is a violent and dangerous sport. There’s no getting around that. I’ve got a son who is just over 2.5 years old and my wife and I have no intention of allowing him to play football. We aren’t the only parents that say things like that either. There’s CTE of course but then there’s also just the horrible things that football does to your body over time. You and I don’t often get to see the long term effects on the bodies of these football players. Of these young men. Most often the players that are front and center after retirement are those that have been able to maintain their physical and mental health throughout their careers. No easy task. What we don’t see are the numerous players with knee trouble, with back trouble, with CTE, with memory loss, with terrible residual symptoms of who knows how many concussions. We don’t see those because it’s hard to look. It’s hard to look at someone who just 10 years earlier was a gladiator worshipped by millions have trouble walking or speaking. We don’t want to see that because it reminds us of the dangers of the game and that football has become, in essence, a modern day bloodsport. Players get injured, lose their careers, are carted off the field, and the game continues to the delight of thousands of cheering fans.

Keep in mind, I’m not condemning those fans. I am one of those fans. None of us want these players to get hurt but with the size, strength, and speed of these athletes, collisions have become more dangerous and more violent. Which gets me back to my original point. Any individual play for a football player could be their last. They’ve made their peace with that though. They understand it and (likely) try to push that out of their mind as they go forward each and every game day.

So why opt out? Well, because bowl games don’t mean a whole lot. Outside of what used to be the NY Day games and are now the Rose Bowl and the CFP (I’m probably missing a historical bowl game here somewhere) what does a bowl game really mean in this era? Do you remember Purdue’s team for the Heart of Dallas Bowl? What about their opponent? What about the Blue Bonnet Bowl? What about the 2011 Little Caesars Bowl? What year did Purdue play in the Champs Sports Bowl? What about the Gator Bowl? What about the time that Purdue played in the Tax-Slayer Bowl? How many of those are real? Do you, the informed Purdue sports fan who reads this website religiously even know? Yeah, you might know but you’re not who truly matters here.

If I’m Payne Durham and I’m being told that I’ve played my way into the NFL Draft (remember, he did get a Senior Bowl and Combine invite) I want to do everything in my power to be healthy and in top shape come Combine time. So, rather than spend a month preparing for a game that seems to have a high downside (the possibility of getting hurt) with a low upside (play another good game) I think I would also lean toward opting-out. But then, why play in the Senior Bowl? One would assume that Durham views this as an opportunity to get in front of scouts and numerous people from the NFL. While yes the opportunity for injury still exists it comes with a large upside of getting in front of a lot of influential folks. That amount of upside doesn’t necessarily exist at the Citrus Bowl.

So, how do we fix this system so that players get the best chance to continue to maximize their value while the bowls and the fans get the best possible games? Well first, I don’t think putting language in scholarships regarding opt-outs would be likely to succeed a legal challenge. This is especially true given the flexibility of college coaches to come and go as they please. Perhaps you could argue for a buyout system if a player leaves before their scholarship ends but at that point the scholarship would become much more like a genuine legal contract and would probably be open to negotiation for individual players. You’re getting into tricky waters there if the NCAA continues to want to say that these players aren’t employees but are instead “student-athletes” which is a completely made up term used to avoid paying worker’s compensation. But I digress. Is there a way to put the money that the school receives for playing in the game into a pot for the players that play in the game? That seems like it would help but if you’re a top 5 or 10 pick is any money going to be enough to sway them to stay? I’m not sure.

The fact is that you and I will never truly know the opportunity these young men have before them. They are being offered generational wealth to play a game. A game that will chew them up and spit them out without a second thought. But a game that can offer wealth beyond their wildest dreams. If you grew up poor or even middle class the possibility of millions of dollars can make you change your thinking real fast. Unless schools or conferences think of a way to entice these young men to stay I would imagine that opt-outs will continue to happen every bowl season. I don’t like it but I certainly don’t begrudge the players for doing what’s best for them any more than I begrudge the computer science student for missing a final for an interview with Google. You’ve got to take the opportunities when they present themselves. For football players especially those opportunities may only last a few years so they’ve got to open fast when opportunity knocks.