To play or not to play? How bowl games became tools for personal, and political, statements

I was too young to rally behind the Montgomery Bus Boycott in the 1950s, or the Delano Grape Strike led by Cesar Chavez.

Thankfully, though, college football has rekindled a revival of protests, sit-ins and sit outs.

Today’s vehicle for leverage, foment and dissent is the American bowl game.

As the Prince of Denmark once said before the Hamlet Bowl: "To play, or not to play?"

Some causes, I must say, are easier to back than others.

Last week, University of Minnesota players threaten to boycott the Holiday Bowl in the most ill-conceived game plan ever concocted by humans with brains.

The Gophers vowed--get this--to lock arms and stand behind 10 teammates connected with an alleged sexual assault of a female after the team’s opening win against Oregon State.

It didn't remind me at all of Rosa Parks.

The players were not criminally charged, yet were being suspended in the aftermath of a school investigation that was mandated by Federal Law.

The coach, shockingly, backed the players and it really seemed on Friday night that the Dec. 27 bowl game was in jeopardy.

Then, according to the Associated Press, these same Gophers on the "leadership" council apparently backed down after actually reading the school’s 80-page incident report.


I read the report, too, and it is horrifying. To think the Gophers were about to boycott a bowl to protect the “due process” of multiple teammates who either participated in, or watched and did nothing about, the defilement of a fellow student.

After reading this report and then picking my jaw off the ground, it seemed reasonable these players in question, in the least, could be guilty of violating school conduct codes that might warrant sitting out a bowl game in San Diego.

I was first outraged the players weren’t going to play in the Holiday Bowl. After reading what happened in that dorm room the night of Sept. 2, I now wish Minnesota was still boycotting and staying in Minneapolis.

My fear now is the players are going to wear arm bands to honor their fallen "heroes." My big problem now is trying to boycott Minnesota in the Holiday Bowl while also wanting to watch Washington State.

A different sort of controversy broke Monday when Stanford tailback Christian McCaffrey announced he was sitting out the Sun Bowl to prepare for next year’s NFL draft.

A lot of people criticized McCaffrey for bailing out on his teammates, even though LSU tailback Leonard Fournette, with little backlash, announced last week he was sitting out the Citrus Bowl to prepare of the NFL draft.

Unlike the Minnesota case, McCaffrey and Fournette have every right to protect their lucrative futures by not risking career-ending injuries in meaningless post-season games.

I’ve had to go to school on this. I used to think a free scholarship was a pretty good trade-off for services rendered on a college football field.

That was before the “M” in college football became a “B,” before a million-dollar business became a billion-dollar business.

I don’t think players are getting a fair shake now in a sport where head coaches make $9 million a year and the Pac 12 commissioner’s annual salary has risen, from $500,000, in 2008, to $4 million.

The "game" has changed and players deserve a bigger piece of the pie. I supported the “idea” of Northwestern trying to become unionized as employees, even though implementation would be next to impossible.

I’ve come to believe in doing everything short of paying players, because that wouldn’t work, either. But I think you can do everything to give them more resources and perks. The full-cost-of-attendance stipend recently adopted was a solid first step.

The idea of criticizing McCaffrey, however, is ridiculous. He is already bound to stay three years in college before declaring for the NFL draft, a rule that stands as legally sturdy as a two-legged stool.

McCaffrey’s only chance of not being a highly-drafted NFL pick is to suffer a severe injury in an additional game on his collegiate ledger.

Cautionary tale? Oregon cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, a projected first-round NFL pick, wrecked his knee on the first day of Rose Bowl practice in advance the Ducks’ national semifinal game against Florida State.

He never played a down in the NFL.

More and more is being asked of college players while they receive less and less. There are now 41 bowl games in the rotation and, sorry to say, not all of them are equal.

There is a slippery slope here and it would be different had McCaffrey announced he was sitting out a national semi-final game to prepare for the NFL. Now THAT would be an issue.

In that situation, though, I doubt McCaffrey, or Fournette, would have made the same decision.

Skipping the Sun and Citrus bowls, however, does no grave harm to mankind, or to a bloated bowl system they did not create.

And I don't consider "harm" a lower rating for CBS or ESPN, or a coach not receiving a contract bonus for winning a bowl game.

McCaffrey and Fournette have fulfilled their obligations to their universities and deserve the right to protect their futures.

Wisconsin Coach Bret Bielema bailed out on the Rose Bowl when he got offered a better job at Arkansas.

Houston Coach Tom Herman, recently hired at Texas, skipped out on his team’s trip to the Las Vegas Bowl.

Why is it Ok for coaches but not players?

Yes, it’s disappointing that WE, for our entertainment purposes, won’t get to watch McCaffrey make tacklers miss in El Paso. But the difference is this: if he tears his ACL we can just say “too bad” and switch to another game.