ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit on players opting out of bowl games: 'I think this era of player just doesn't love football'

·5 min read

ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit doesn't think players love football as much as they did decades ago.

Herbstreit criticized players who opt out of bowl games during ESPN's "College GameDay" show on Saturday morning. The network's top analyst openly wondered why non-playoff bowl games were "meaningless" to players who opted to skip the games to prepare for their NFL careers and said he didn't think that expanding the College Football Playoff to include more teams and more games would prevent players on top teams from opting out of games in the future. 

"Isn't that what we do as football players, we compete? I don't know if changing it, expanding it is going to change anything, I really don't," Herbstreit said. "I think this era of player just doesn't love football."

Fellow analyst and 1990 Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard then agreed with Herbstreit. You can watch their exchange below.

"Their whole mentality right now is about the championship, the playoff," Howard said. "We've got to get into the CFP and because of that they don't value the bowl games. When we were coming up, Herbstreit and myself, to go to a bowl game was a huge reward for a fantastic season. That's what it meant."

Herbstreit tweeted an attempt to "clarify" what he said on GameDay later Saturday by saying that there are some college football players who don't love the game as much as players in the past.

Why Kirk Herbstreit, Desmond Howard are wrong

The criticism of players from Herbstreit and Howard is simply wrong. Players are opting out of bowl games to preserve their bodies for potentially lucrative NFL careers. Both Herbstreit and Howard know that football is a dangerous game and the chance to get a second contract in the NFL and set yourself up financially for life is one that outweighs the risk of playing in an exhibition game for many players. 

Players opting out of bowl games aren't guaranteed to make anything near the money playing football that Howard and Herbstreit currently do talking about college football on television. Just look at former Michigan tight end Jake Butt, whose football career was derailed by a knee injury in the Orange Bowl.

A player opting out of a bowl game to prep for the draft and a potentially better rookie contract isn't a sign that he doesn't love football. It's simply a different perspective on loving football. If a player didn't love playing football, why would he choose to keep playing the sport after college in the first place?

Howard's comments about the importance of the playoff are especially tone-deaf. His employer is a huge reason why so much emphasis is placed on the playoff. The three College Football Playoff games are anchor programming for ESPN and the network's analysts spend hours and hours talking about the College Football Playoff rankings throughout the season. ESPN makes the playoff the focus of the college football season.

And besides, have you ever heard an analyst on ESPN criticize a millionaire coach's love of the game after he took a new job ahead of a bowl game? Both Lincoln Riley (Oklahoma to USC) and Brian Kelly (Notre Dame to LSU) left their top-10 teams before their bowl games this season for bigger paydays and greener pastures and neither had their dedication to college football criticized on GameDay.

How playoff expansion would slow opt-outs and help ESPN

Contrary to what Herbstreit said Saturday, it's very likely that expanding the playoff would have a significant impact on the way that NFL prospects on top teams handle bowl season. And it would be a boost to ESPN too. 

Consider the Peach Bowl won by Michigan State over Pitt. The Spartans played the game without star running back Kenneth Walker III and Pitt was without Heisman finalist quarterback Kenny Pickett as they chose to prepare for the draft. Don't you think that they would have played in the game if that was part of a 12-team tournament for the College Football Playoff? Look at the rosters of the four playoff teams; no one is skipping out on the chance to compete for a national title. 

Simply put, the absence of Pickett and Walker dimmed the appeal of the Peach Bowl. ESPN, Herbstreit and Howard know that. ESPN and its analysts have a vested interest in college football stars playing in the games broadcast on ESPN networks. Star players attract viewers, and bowl games largely exist these days as programming content for ESPN over the holiday season. The network doesn't want college football's most marketable players skipping out on its bowl games. 

But players choose to miss bowl games because they and ESPN know every other non-playoff game has no impact on the championship. More games with title implications would lead to fewer players on top teams opting out. And it would also provide ESPN with more storylines throughout the course of the season in addition to more important games at the end of the year.

College football has changed a lot since Herbstreit and Howard played — their presence on the field at the Rose Bowl talking about the game on ESPN hours before the game is played is proof of that. And that change has helped players realize that they have rights and leverage when it comes to the future of their careers. While the two analysts may disagree with how the players are exercising their rights, they have no grounds to criticize the dedication of the NFL prospects who help sustain their careers.

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