On January 7, 2016, Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith suffered a severe knee injury — a torn ACL and a torn LCL — against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. Smith was rightly thought to be a top-five prospect in the upcoming draft (I had him rated as the best draft-eligible player, regardless of position), but the injury scuttled Smith’s draft stock, and he was selected by the Dallas Cowboys with the 34th overall pick in the 2017 draft. There’s very little question that had he remained healthy, Smith would have been a much higher pick and made far more money, and his decision to play with his teammates and for his coaches — the “right way,” as paid pundits keep telling us — cost him millions of dollars.
On January 1, 2022, Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral suffered a lower leg injury when sacked against Baylor in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Corral, a consensus first-round prospect in the 2022 draft, couldn’t put any weight on his right foot after the injury, and he had to be carted off the field.
Corral had gone into the game with the best intentions, and he didn’t care that his draft stock might be affected.
#OleMiss QB Matt Corral is a projected first-round pick (#8 overall to WFT according to ESPN)
Will he opt out of the Sugar Bowl?
"I wouldn't be in this position w/o them. I won't just leave. I know what's on the other side but I'm gonna give these guys everything I got."
— Jon Sokoloff (@JonSokoloff) December 13, 2021
Unfortunately, the best intentions don’t always produce the optimal results. We don’t know at this point what Corral’s long-term health will be. We don’t know what his medical tests will show at the scouting combine in early March. And we don’t know what this will do to his draft stock, his earning potential, and his ability to develop in an NFL environment.
What we do know is that we had the standard car wash we generally get when these things happen, courtesy of ESPN’s Joe Tessitore, who was calling the game.
“I know there’s been a lot of people railing on college football this year,” Tessitore said. “The transfer portal, and NILs, and the changing landscape, and are these postseason games really meaningful outside of the Playoff. Matt Corral is all you need to know. He’s doing it the right way, he cares about it the right way.”
So… those “student-athletes” who decide to opt out of their final college games after giving it their all for years to protect their futures against an organization in the NCAA that will have nothing for them if they damage those futures for the NCAA’s own profitability aren’t doing it the right way? They don’t care the right way?
Really? And what’s with the performative outrage regarding the rights of those players? Tessitore wasn’t calling that game for free. Maybe he doesn’t care about it the right way, either.
Now, could Corral have suffered this injury just as easily in the third game of the season? At which point should players opt out to protect their futures? Legitimate questions that could have been delved into with more nuance had we not been getting the NCAA party line all day.
Of course, this brouhaha started on New Year’s morning, when fellow ESPN commentators Kirk Herbstreit and Desmond Howard got all in their feelings about players opting out.
and, as befits a show that shouldn't even need to be on, the hosts are wilding out with "today's youth are entitled and it's the fault of video games" nonsense pic.twitter.com/4EdBFuTivH
— Timothy Burke (@bubbaprog) January 1, 2022
Of course, new USC head coach Lincoln Riley, who left the Oklahoma Sooners before their bowl game, was… um… doing it for the right reasons?
Totally unfair to present Herbie & Desmond as myopic dullards when on the very same show they went on to show their profound empathy for Lincoln Riley & his difficult decision to leave Norman, OK. https://t.co/GY7Fr213hF pic.twitter.com/bIiLeQiKUr
— Dave Dameshek (@Dameshek) January 1, 2022
“What’s the difference as a player and saying these games are ‘meaningless?’” Herbstreit said. “Des, we played in ‘meaningless games.’ I know you guys were here a lot. I just don’t understand that if you don’t make it to the Playoff, how is it meaningless to play football and compete? Isn’t that what we do as football players, we compete? So I don’t know if changing or expanding (the Playoff). I just think this era of player doesn’t love football.”
“Their whole mentality is all about the championship or the Playoff,” Howard responded. “Because of that, they don’t value the bowl game. When we were coming up, Herbstreit and myself, going to a bowl game was a huge reward for a fantastic season. That’s what it meant. Your team played this well so you’re going to be rewarded with a bowl game, you’re going to get a ring, you’re going to get swag. Now, kids don’t really care about that. They have a sense of entitlement. It’s like, ‘If we’re not going to the one that matters, it just doesn’t have as much value’ — like it did for us coming up.”
Herbstreit tried to employ damage control later in the day… which didn’t really work. Because he keeps lumping the players who do not agree with his way of seeing things into one category.
Just wanted to clarify some of my comments from earlier today. Of course some players love the game the same today as ever. But some don’t. I’ll always love the players of this game and sorry if people thought I generalized or lumped them all into one category. pic.twitter.com/PS9Pu5rcoo
— Kirk Herbstreit (@KirkHerbstreit) January 1, 2022
Different things mean different things to different players. The NCAA has made billions of dollars off the backs of athletes who haven’t even had the opportunity to market their own names until very recently. The sharecropper mentality inherent in this system has been detailed time and time again.
The schools make money hand over fist, The networks broadcasting bowl games make money hand over fist. It’s almost understandable, in a pathetic fashion, that those who benefit most from a system in which athletes have no rights would be the most easily offended when those athletes finally get a taste at the table. Herbstreit, one of ESPN’s most visible and constant pundits, has a reported annual salary of $2 million. ESPN currently has a deal to broadcast the College Football Playoff through 2025 that costs them about $5.64 billion in total.
So. maybe the party line is more about profits than the right way to do things.
Herbstreit is a specifically interesting example in that video games were brought up in this specific conversations as to why players just don’t care about the game as he did. In 2016, Herbstreit blamed Ed O’Bannon, who won a lawsuit related to the uncompensated use of his likeness and the likenesses of other athletes, for the loss of EA Sports’ annual college football video game.
“I’ve never met one player in college football that’s like: ‘They can’t use my name and likeness! I need to be paid!’ They’re just thrilled to be on the game,” Herbstreit said. “They love being on the game. It’s like the biggest highlight of their life, is to be on the game.”
In that Herbstreit had been the voice of EA’s game, perhaps we’re dealing with yet another conflict of interest.
“It was a great honor to be asked to go from playing the game to being on the game, and I would love to do that,” Herbstreit said a year ago. “I hope to get the opportunity when the game comes back,”
It’s also fundamentally interesting that Herbstreit has been very vocal about college athletes staying off social media.
“My recommendation in the future for all coaches – and I don’t know if you could control this – is get players away from social media; college players,” Herbstreit said in 2015. “Because what I find is it’s counterproductive. And I know it’s freedom of speech and you guys should get on this topic some time. And I don’t know how you’d control it. But I’ve never seen a team as active as Ohio State on social media and kind of going back-and-forth, whether it’s the fans, or media, or whatever it might be.
“You can say it doesn’t affect you, but at the end of the day it does. I would do everything in my power if I were a coach in today’s climate to say, ‘Hey guys, camp starts August 1 and your phones and social media, they get put on the sidelines until we’re done playing. You’re not going to engage. You’re not going to get involved. Because there’s nothing good that comes out of that.”
Is it possible that one reason Herbstreit would prefer college players to stay off social media is that they have one fewer outlet to defend themselves against blanket statements regarding their love of the game? Is it also possible that Herbstreit’s preference in this regard is due to a need for the NCAA to maintain its status quo?
Given the history, I’d say it’s entirely possible on both counts.
Kirk Herbstreit is one announcer on a major network. He does not inherently embody everything that’s wrong with college sports. But over the last few years, and especially at the turn of this New Year, he does seem to be the cartel’s most vocal mouthpiece.
And that’s yet another shame in college sports.