Any negativity regarding bowl opt-outs should be aimed at B1G
There are members of the Nebraska football team who haven’t seen their families since the spring.
According to their coach, Minnesota has had players with loved ones battling COVID-19. The Golden Gophers themselves were missing more than 40 personnel at one point due to the virus.
Penn State is one of a handful of teams — ever — to play 9 games in 9 weeks, and all came against Big Ten opponents.
In any other year, it’d be justifiable to question a team’s philosophy when it opts out of a bowl game, as the Huskers, Minnesota, Nittany Lions, Michigan State, Maryland and other programs around the country have.
This, of course, isn’t any other year.
If you’re bummed out you won’t get to see your favorite team strap ’em on 1 more time in this grueling season, you’re not alone. But before passing judgment on a team’s, coach’s or player’s commitment, remember that the B1G had a chance to set its members up for better than this and failed.
Maybe it’d be different if the conference had stuck with its plan to start in September like the SEC, ACC and Big 12. Maybe it’d be different if the league hadn’t put its clubs in such an impossible situation that it basically had to bend its rules on the fly to help Ohio State get into the College Football Playoff.
As it stands, players who have slogged their way through draconian protocols, and essentially a year of what makes college great go down the drain, have every right to step back and focus on the higher goods in life. If 2020 has shown us anything, it’s that there are a lot more of those goods than just athletic competition.
You can want to play and choose not to play without being hypocritical. Just ask Nebraska linebacker Collin Miller, whose football career ended a couple of weeks ago as the result of a head and neck injury.
Miller’s team will surely get crucified in some corners of Internet pseudo-journalism, either by an opportunistic columnist or perhaps just the average Iowa fan. But the Huskers have been at this longer than almost any team in the country.
It’s why they were one of the most vocal entities in the push to restore B1G football this fall. And they made it through the season without a large COVID breakout after they’d been together since early summer.
“This year has been a long grind,” Huskers coach Scott Frost, whose team finished 3-5 with a win over Rutgers on Friday, said in a statement, “and it is time for our guys to have the opportunity to spend Christmas and the holiday season with their family and friends.”
Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck painted a similar picture Saturday after his team’s 20-17 overtime loss to Wisconsin.
The Gophers dealt with one of FBS’ worst outbreaks. They could’ve folded the tent, but instead they beat Nebraska while missing 33 players and took their border rivals to an extra frame the following week.
“I think every football player wants to play,” Fleck said. “Everybody wants to compete, and everybody wants to go to a bowl. But I think you got to look at a lot of different factors.
“Let’s say that your child is away at school and everything’s shut down. You can’t go anywhere. The thought of your son on Christmas morning having a boxed lunch sitting in the room because they can’t go anywhere. That’s Christmas?”
So in this case, there’s nothing wrong with getting these guys back to their folks and starting to focus on next season. Teams from other leagues, including Kansas State, Louisville, San Diego State, Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh, Stanford and Virginia, all made the same decision before Saturday.
They likely won’t be the last, either.
In most of the B1G instances, the decision was a collective one between coaches, administration and players. College athletes from a previous generation might scoff at the idea of players being that intimately involved, but this is a new age, when the athlete’s voice carries more weight than ever.
It was their choice to play, which is why the B1G’s hard-headedness at first was so misplaced. It’s also their choice to say it’s time to move on.
“I couldn’t be more proud and encouraged by how our team conducted itself during this unprecedented season,” Penn State coach James Franklin said in a statement. “One of our four core values is a willingness to sacrifice, and our student-athletes, coaches and staff have all made incredible sacrifices both on and off the field in order for us to compete this year.
“This has been a challenging nine months, but we are proud of how our student-athletes have navigated these difficult times.”
It also exposes the bowl system for what it is — a series of year-end exhibitions that provide 1 more chance for players to compete and for schools, leagues and corporate sponsors to generate revenue.
With bowl games being canceled left and right and the product of those that remain diluted by crowd-size restrictions, why condemn a group of college kids who have gone above and beyond for the past 6-8 months to focus on their health and those close to them?
That’s the most important lesson, one we all need to be reminded of.
As much as we love this great game of ours, there are way, way more important things than football.