Opt-Outs: Another Reason to Pay the Players

This week I did something I promised myself I wouldn’t do: I watched the college football national championship game. The game featured two teams from adjacent states, neither of which owns a single snow plow between them. Teams that had sat near the top of the rankings all season and might as well have been in the NFL. Either one of them could have beaten the Lions or the Jaguars with half the team on the COVID protocol.

But I watched Alabama and Georgia anyway and, actually, it turned out to be a pretty exciting game. The “underdog” dogs even won.

It was a good game because the good players played, which is more than you can say for top NFL prospects who faced the risk of injury in the Milwaukee Milorganite Fertilizer Bowl, which does not actually exist, but should.

Here’s how the website Sportscasting described it:

This season, a glut of top-tier talent stayed home (or at least on the sideline) instead of playing in their team’s bowl game.

Of the players on ESPN’s Todd McShay’s top 50 list of 2022 NFL Draft prospects, 14 opted out of their school’s bowl game. This includes a contender for the No. 1 overall pick, Oregon DE Kayvon Thibodeaux, and the top QB in the draft, Pitt’s Kenny Pickett.

The No. 2-ranked QB, Ole Miss Matt Corral, did play in the Sugar Bowl and nearly suffered a draft-redefining injury, which, thankfully, turned out to be just a severely sprained.

Other top 50 prospects who opted-out this bowl season include:

  • Notre Dame S Kyle Hamilton (ranked No. 5)
  • Ohio State WR Garrett Wilson (9)
  • Mississippi State OL Charles Cross (10)
  • Purdue DE George Karlaftis (19)
  • Ohio State WR Chris Olave (22)
  • Penn State WR Jahan Dotson (24)
  • Arkansas WR Treylon Burks (29)
  • Ohio State OL Nicholas Petit-Frere (32)
  • Penn State LB Brandon Smith (41)
  • Michigan State RB Kenneth Walker III (48)
  • Nevada QB Carson Strong (49)

This is a problem for college football and for the bowls themselves, which are either money-making enterprises or tourist draws for the sponsoring cities. Opting out is a trend that started in 2016 and has just snowballed since. In the long-run it means that more fans will decide to opt-out themselves from the trip to the game or from bothering to watch it on television.

Matt Corral was lucky that an injury in a meaningless bowl game didn’t cost him his NFL career.

You can’t blame the players. Unless you’re playing for the national championship, why on earth would you risk millions of dollars in your pro career with an injury in a meaningless game? See Matt Corral’s scare above.

This year the NCAA was forced, at the point of guns pointed at its head from the courts, Congress and Legislatures, to allow players to benefit from their own name, image and likeness (NIL), which essentially meant that they can do commercials and sell tee shirts and stuff. That’s fine and it didn’t destroy the game as the NCAA had breathlessly predicted for decades, but it also didn’t do much to help most players. NIL works for the stars, but it doesn’t do anything for average players or even good players at lower profile positions.

That’s why all the players need to be paid a fair salary, just like their coaches. And this could even help address the opt-out situation. Schools might include a contract provision with their players that requires them to play in bowl games if they’re healthy. They might even pay them a bonus if they do so.

We’re never going back to the bad old days of the “student-athlete” myth. NIL and the transfer portal assure us of that. But what we’ve got right now is an uneven playing field where a handful of star athletes can command significant incomes from NIL and they can opt-out of bowl games to protect their future incomes, while the vast majority of their supporting cast is still laboring in the old system of indentured servitude.

Taking the next step of paying the players real salaries that reflect their worth isn’t just the right thing to do for the players; it’s the right thing to do for the fans who enjoy a good bowl game, even it it’s named after a fertilizer.

Welcome to the 331st day of consecutive posts here at YSDA. Thanks for reading!

Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

4 thoughts on “Opt-Outs: Another Reason to Pay the Players

  1. Specifically what is fair pay for college athletes? I’d like someone to define in specific monetary value these athletes should be compensated, over and above their compensation of tuition, room and board, meals, coaching, personal trainers, nutritionists, physical therapy, chiropractors, etc. Lots of monetary value.

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    1. Just like the pros and their own coaches: let the free market work. I also think the players should have a union, like the pros, that sets minimum salaries, conditions of employment, etc. On the other end, there may need to be some sort of salary cap agreed to by the union. This all works out well in the pros to fairly compensate the players while maintaining competitiveness. And let’s be serious. Isn’t the NFL more competitive than the NCAA? Does the NFL have anything like Alabama and the SEC?

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  2. David: love your daily energy and admire your streak on posts! Regarding our beloved college athletes, I don’t know how many accommodations we can heap on them to make them happy, and now they all expect to be paid. I concede (sadly) that the essence of pride in representing your alma mater is a thing of the past, however the formula should require substantial readjustment to reach down to benefit the least-likely to succeed participants. Will enjoy seeing how schools pivot to bring more opportunity to participate in more sports as a result of the capital formation occurring in their school-sponsored sports programs, including this recent compromise in amateurism.

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    1. Thanks, Bob. That’s a difficult issue: the chasm between real student-athletes who play sports that don’t generate revenues or play at the lower division levels and the relatively few athletes who play the big income sports, mainly Power Five football programs and the corresponding men’s basketball programs. But my main contention is that the guys who are actually playing the games and generating the kinds of revenues that wind up paying coaches, administrators, TV networks, apparel companies and others millions deserve more than a scholarship.

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