College football players will keep making business decisions, despite those who would rather they don’t

Kirk Herbstreit and Desmond Howard sparked a firestorm of criticism on Saturday for their public lamentations about some college football players choosing not to play in bowl games that have no consequence to the pursuit of a national championship. The pushback that they received for their antiquated thinking shows how far the mainstream attitudes have come when it comes to players with NFL prospects preserving their ability to finally get paid for their talents, abilities, and sacrifices.

Finally, in the broad spectrum of business decisions made about the billion-dollar business that is college football, players have the ability to make their own business decisions. Finally, fans and media realize that those who profit from unpaid labor — including those employed by the four-letter network that has made a nine-figure investment in college football — have a clear interest in coercing players who have nothing to gain and everything to lose to play one more game, and no interest in ensuring that those who may suffer serious injury protect their own earning capacity.

It’s not about loving football. It’s not about the joy of competition. It’s about providing one more burst of entertainment with no compensation for doing so. Some want football players who, barred from entry to the NFL by a corrupt system that forces them to play college football for three years before being eligible to be drafted, will willingly participate in one more game, one last time. No matter the very real risks that they assume to their ability to finally get fair compensation by playing in that one extra game.

How quickly they forget about Jaylon Smith, whose torn ACL in the Fiesta Bowl caused him to plummet to round two of the draft, and to constantly try to play with a knee that never was quite the same. How conveniently they ignore the game of musical chairs in which coaches like Brian Kelly and Lincoln Riley have freely engaged, abandoning their teams before the season was over to grab the millions of dollars that another program dangled in their faces.

Everyone involved in the sport of college football makes business decisions. They’ve been making business decisions for decades. Why should those players who have performed at a level sufficient to set themselves up for a professional career that will pay them to play football not be making business decisions, too?

Unless and until college football pays the players fair value, college football and those who broadcast the games should never, ever shame the men who consciously choose not to play one last game for free. Not when they’ll be risking draft position at best and long-term prospects at worst if the worst-case scenario happens in that one last game.

It’s refreshing, frankly, that so many saw directly through the self-interest that echoed through the statements made by Herbstreit and Howard about “entitlement” or whatever. The best of the best college players aren’t entitled to choose to withhold services. They’ve earned that right.

They’ve earned the right to protect themselves. They’ve earned the right to preserve their ability to get paid to play football at the next level. They’ve earned the right to say “enough” when it comes to rolling the dice on their own futures.

That won’t stop random voices who would prefer to have the best players keep playing for free to find new and creative ways to lament the fact that some players have decided that they won’t risk the brass ring that they’re about to grasp in the name of grossly outdated boola-boola ideals about putting their bodies at risk for the love of the game or whatever other cliche can be thrown around in the name of persuading them to risk losing it all, in the name of giving ESPN and its audience a “better” game.

But it has caused those who appreciate the basic business realities of football to understand why it makes no sense to risk a torn ACL or some other serious injury. That’s the most refreshing aspect of it. Those who would be entertained by the best players playing one more game are happy to forego their presence because they realize that, for those players, the time has come to pull the plug on feeding a college-football machine that has never given them fair value. If it’s good enough for those who watch bowl games, it should be good enough for those who stage them, and who broadcast them.

Maybe, once the next bowl season arrives, those who broadcast the games will choose to accept the fact that those who have fueled a system that gives them peanuts in return will think twice before trying to paint those players as not loving football. They’ve proven that they love football. There’s nothing wrong with them choosing to protect their ability to love football as NFL players, where the game will love them back by, for example, giving them a proper salary.