By James Ragland

$19 million. Say that slowly:
Nine-teen m-i-l-l-I-o-n dollars. With a modest 3% return that equates to $570,000 a year in interest.

For life.

That is essentially what former Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith lost when he injured his knee playing in the “non-playoff” Fiesta Bowl vs. Ohio State last year. Smith, who was a 1st Round, top ten projected NFL draft pick was drafted in the 2nd round by the Dallas Cowboys; but the difference between where Smith was projected to be drafted and where he actually got drafted is significant.

Fast forward to this season and the fallout from Smith’s injury is leading the news cycle for an entirely different reason. His injury is now being used as justification for college football athletes to skip “non-playoff” Bowl games in order to prepare for their NFL draft opportunity.

And I don’t blame them.

The awakening has begun. The die has been cast, and college athletes are justifiably in revolt. Sure there are only a handful of cases now, starting with Oklahoma defensive tackle Charles Walker, and including higher profile athletes like LSU workhorse Leonard Fournette, Stanford All World athlete Christian McCaffery, and finally Baylor running back Linwood Jones; however the trend is gaining traction and the discussion so far favors the already over-exploited athletes.

Why on earth would a kid who has already provided millions of dollars worth of revenue for the university he plays for risk multigenerational wealth by playing in a bowl game that has been rendered meaningless by the very system which profited from his exploits in the first place? Casting aside (but not really) the demographic make-up of the majority of the impacted athletes, the negative response to players sitting out has been laughable.

“No loyalty to the team…”
“What about commitment to the program…”
Or my favorite, “I hope nobody drafts them…”

Let’s be real. In a capitalist society, loyalty is clearly not a value. In terms of commitment to the program, how is protection of your own interests after having provided the university with the opportunity to reap a financial windfall for at least three years of your life not showing “commitment?”

College Football is a farm league for the NFL. Stop pretending it isn’t. The athletes who win college football championships (more on that in a moment) and get drafted in the first few rounds of the NFL draft are superior in their abilities and so are their teams. These young men receive a college education; however the education pales in comparison to the value that they provide to the university themselves.

When it comes to bowl games, only three games remain that have any significance. The College Football Playoff has turned “non-playoff” bowls into meaningless time-slot fillers for the networks and sponsors who gobble them up. If fans don’t care, then why should I risk my future to play in the Sun Bowl? The fact that you don’t hear of playoff bound athletes backing out of those games is meaningful. If that ever happens, then it will be bedlam.

Kids are accepting reality, and so should we. I can’t blame a young man, who probably came from a family situation with little to no wealth (McCaffery excluded) for protecting his draft lottery ticket by dismissing any game outside of the playoff as not worth his time. The logical question becomes, “If my team is out of the playoff hunt in week eight should I shut it down?”

My answer to that is, “yes.”

Be selfish. Everybody else who is wealthy has been and will continue to be. Is there a solution? I think so, but a reality check is in order not only for the institutions and players, but for the fans as well.

1st, pay the players. I don’t care if it’s complicated. Figure it out. Incorporate the NFL into this solution since they are the primary benefactors of all of the exploited labor of collegiate athletes.

2nd, if college athletes shouldn’t be allowed to back out of bowl games, then the NCAA should institute a “no hiring period” for coaches until after all regular season and bowl games have been played.

If we are talking about fairness and loyalty, then Fournette should be allowed to skip the Citrus Bowl if Tom Herman can give his entire squad the “kiss of death” while they enter the locker room for their game at Memphis, knowing full well he’s scampering to more riches at Texas the moment the game is over. That’s pathetic, and wrong and we should not have double standards for kids when adults can bolt at a moments notice and not suffer a penalty.

3rd, and probably the most controversial because it causes risk for the university, insure players at the value of their projected draft stock. Yes, I know that players can obtain private insurance for injury in games, and Jaylon Smith apparently had it. Good for him. Still, the difference between that insurance payment and $19 million is stark.

Why can’t universities secure insurance for the value? Just like credit scores, there are enough draft experts to gather the three best and project, on average where a kid will go in the draft. The risk to the university is low in that they would only be paying for the policy, and not the actual payout. If players playing in meaningless games is so important, they can assume that level of risk and more. The endowment for Stanford is $22 billion. Notre Dame’s is $10 billion. Affordability is not an issue.

I want to be clear. We created this problem when we implemented the playoff and to a lesser extent, the BCS system. To the NCAA’s credit, this situation can easily be used to garner even more resources by expanding the playoff, but something must be done and done quickly.

The response by the players to meaningless bowl games tells you all you need to know about their thoughts on them. Face it, you feel the same way too. Who among us is setting aside time to strap up and watch the “Famous Idaho Potato Bowl” with riveting interest? And I’m sorry, if you need a local team to fill out your stands in a bowl game, you’re not really a reward for anybody.

Kids aren’t stupid and neither are fans. Jaylon Smith has come forward and stated that, “If I could go back to Jan. 1st, I’d play again…”

Smart move. What else was he supposed to say? This comment allows those who are already extremely wealthy to point to Smith and say, “He’s a great kid, with great character!”

I have no doubt that this is the case, but $19 million is still $19 million. My advice to those who aren’t playing in the playoff?

“Take the money and run.”

James Ragland is the quintessential football fan and speaks solely from that perspective. The snarky nature of his commentary is infused with truth from his perspective and not that of the publisher.