On the fifth day of Christmas this year, I did not receive five golden rings—but rings were very much on my mind as I watched the various college football games on television. The teams playing that day were no longer in the running for championship rings, and consequently many of their best players had “opted out” of post-season competition. This has become common in recent years; many consider it standard practice by now. The best players often “opt out” because they hope to play in the NFL next year and they wish to avoid injury. Other players may “opt out” because they hope to play for a different school next fall and they need to be enrolled there by January 1—which means that by the time the bowl games are played they have already left their “old” teams for pastures they hope will be greener. For fans, this produces contests between the decimated husks of once-great teams playing badly with players who sometimes seem as unfamiliar to each other as they are to us.
For example, in the “Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl” (let’s not even start on the sponsorships, or we’ll never get back to the players), No. 16 Notre Dame pounded No. 19 Oregon State by a score of 40-8. But it wasn’t really Oregon State, nor was it really Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish were down ten starters, including their starting quarterback and leading rusher (both headed for the NFL) and two of their top wide receivers. And the Irish were relatively lucky compared to the hapless Beavers, whose head coach for the 2023 season had already announced his intention to coach for Michigan State in 2024. The coach’s departure sent Beavers stampeding into the NCAA’s “transfer portal” (with apologies to our Heights naturalists for the image of stampeding Beavers). Oregon State had played well all season in one of the major conferences, and had come within a field goal of upsetting the undefeated Washington Huskies as recently as mid-November. Yet the Beavers found themselves without their starting quarterback or his backup, or their punter or their placekicker, or nine other starters, or (let’s not forget) their head coach. Is it any wonder they played badly?
Later, in what should have been an excellent matchup between the No. 7 Ohio State Buckeyes (12-1) and the No. 9 Missouri Tigers (11-2), Ohio State was missing seventeen transferees and Missouri was missing twelve. For most of the game, the Buckeyes were led by a freshman third-stringer at quarterback, and that poor kid had to do without the services of his erstwhile teammate, Marvin Harrison Jr., “Maserati Marv,” who is very widely acclaimed as one of the most talented wide receivers in college football. In contrast, the Tigers’ starting quarterback, their leading running back, and their star wide receiver (“Lamborghini Luther”) were there to play and they played hard, giving the Tigers a gritty, come-from-behind, 14-3 victory in the Cotton Bowl (or, if you insist, the “Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic”).
For Ohio State to go without a touchdown was remarkable, and the TV cameras kept showing us pictures of the missing wide receiver, Maserati Marv Harrison himself, looking on from the sidelines. I’m not sure whether the director of the telecast was making implicit apologies for the touchdown-challenged Buckeyes (“Remember, they’re playing without Harrison”) or inviting us to reflect on Harrison’s decision—and by extension, on the whole idea of “opting out.” As a Michigan fan, I’m generally able to watch Buckeye losses with cheerfulness or at least equanimity. But as the game wore on, I found myself fixated on the moral questions the camera silently asked: What did Harrison’s decision tell us about his priorities? Should we praise those priorities, or find in them something to criticize, and to warn younger athletes against?
Perhaps incongruously, I found myself thinking of The Iliad. Specifically, I thought of Achilles, whose pride and anger lead him to “opt out” of battle with the Trojans. Achilles is the greatest of the Greeks in battle, but his refusal to fight does not stop the fighting; it only places the burden of battle on his friends. His dearest friend, Patroklos, dies wearing Achilles’ own armor, as if to emphasize that he is in some sense standing exactly where Achilles should have been. Ultimately, and far too late, Achilles realizes that Patroklos died “far away from the land of his fathers” because he “lacked my fighting strength to defend him.” This is of no minor subplot in The Iliad: Homer begins with “the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians” by sending “multitudes” of “strong souls” to Hades.
The analogy is imperfect, of course. A football player who sits out a bowl game is usually not acting out of anger like Achilles (though some in the transfer portal may be), and an absent player’s teammates are unlikely to become carrion without his efforts. I would not go so far as to speculate that Marvin Harrison Jr. felt the “black cloud of sorrow” that closed on Achilles when he learned of his friend’s death. But Harrison sure didn’t look very happy on the Ohio State sideline during the Cotton Bowl. He seemed to me to be sinking into something like the wave of emotion that overtakes Achilles in Homer’s telling: the grief that arrives with the belated recognition that one’s friends have suffered in ways one could perhaps have prevented. There is undoubtedly an element of abandonment here; a solidarity deficit at the highest levels of a sport that we value largely for its ability to teach solidarity. How did we get here?
The Opt-Out Era in which we find ourselves seems to have started around 2016. In January of that year, Notre Dame’s highly touted Jaylon Smith suffered a serious knee injury in the Fiesta Bowl and, despite successful surgery, he was drafted far lower than NFL scouts had expected before the injury. The following December, future NFL stars Christian McCaffrey and Leonard Fournette refused to play in the post-season for Stanford and LSU respectively. Since then, the phenomenon has become common, and most fans of my acquaintance reluctantly accept its implicit logic: the really big college stars are on the eve of a huge payday in the upcoming NFL draft, and it would be tragic for them to be injured in a post-season bowl in a way that materially reduces their prospective earnings in the NFL.
I find this justification pretty unpersuasive. For one thing, I cannot help but notice that the teams playing for a national championship are generally unaffected by opt-outs. That is, in the bowl games that are part of the college football playoff system, even the star players remain committed to the team’s goal of winning it all, despite the risk of injury. Is the risk of injury in a playoff bowl game somehow less than it would be in a non-playoff bowl game like this year’s Cotton Bowl? That can’t be. Football games (and other athletic contests) always entail a risk of injury, but there is no reason to think that risk is any greater in a game between No. 7 and No. 9 than in a game between No. 1 and No. 4.
Similarly, if the risk of injury is really the primary factor, then why do players seem to disregard that risk all season long before they suddenly become cautious? It would have been tragic for Marvin Harrison, Jr. to suffer a career-ending injury in any game this season, but Harrison would never have dreamed of skipping Ohio State’s final regular-season game against traditional arch-rival Michigan—a game in which he not only played but excelled. The same is true of nearly every one of Harrison’s 38 games as a Buckeye. On every snap, he faced the risk of injury—possibly minor, possibly performance-inhibiting, or possibly career-ending. He played, and played hard, despite the risk. Why was the Cotton Bowl different?
Furthermore, it is not as if the players who opt out are deciding never to play football again; they are in fact hoping to play football for a living. But there is something very odd about becoming a celebrated competitor and then choosing to prevent injury by abstaining from competition. A champion boxer who refused to defend his title for fear of injury might be a very skilled boxing instructor, but he would no longer be a champion boxer. And an elite football player with once-in-a-generation talent might still have all that talent if he never played another down, but we surely could no longer call him an elite football player. We should not let the sudden popularity of “opting out” among our elite college football players distract us from noticing how strange it is for young men who aspire to football greatness to skip football games. It’s so strange that I suspect something else is going on, something related less to the risk of injury than to our declining respect for the commitment and fidelity inherent in team sports.
As far as I can tell, the only real difference between playoff bowls and non-playoff bowls, or between bowl games and regular season games, is that playoff bowls are universally acknowledged to “mean something,” while the others have somehow recently become unworthy of a truly great player’s commitment. This strikes me as a terrible lesson to teach, as it can only be based on an impoverished appreciation of the virtues that bind teammates together. The NCAA’s promotional video on the value of college sports insists that college athletes are learning “skills to succeed in the classroom, in competition, and in life,” including “leadership, confidence, discipline and teamwork.” Undoubtedly that is the experience of many of the athletes; probably it is what most fans are celebrating, even if they don’t explicitly frame it that way. Isn’t a minimum condition of teamwork actually working with the team? The widespread acceptance of the notion that any game in which one’s teammates are engaged could be unworthy of a team leader’s participation fights violently with the concept of what it means to be a team leader. Opt-outs demonstrate a character defect of Homeric proportions; a rupture in what is supposed to be one of nature’s strongest social relationships outside the family. And to be clear, the fault is not especially Marvin Harrison’s or any other player’s; the fault is primarily ours, for coming to think it normal and healthy for a team’s most prominent players to end the season by saying they have better things to do.
For a contrasting picture, consider the famous locker room speech by legendary Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler (1929-2006) about the unique value of “The Team. The Team, The Team, The Team.” Schembechler told his players that once they left college for the NFL, they would be playing for contracts, for this and that, “for everything except the team.” Before they entered the professional phase of their lives, he encouraged them to focus on the unique value of their team in their lives. Did Bo Schembechler like to win? You bet he did. But he would never have agreed with the proposition that games only matter when they might lead to a national championship. Bo would have hated opt-outs because they dissolve the bonds of the team. Homer would have hated opt-outs because a champion who refuses to fight forfeits the glory of the champion. Bo and Homer both admired excellence in young men who used their talents in service to their comrades in arms; men who demonstrated their heroism not by skipping out, but by standing shoulder to shoulder with their less talented friends and countrymen. I’m with Homer and Bo.
I know football is only a game, and I know that many of college football’s critics consider it to be nothing more than professional sports with an amateur veneer. But most college football players really are amateurs and always will be. And the game is watched and loved by hundreds of millions precisely because of its social (occasionally tribal) dimension, with all the strong emotions that inspires. Our sons and daughters are watching, so the way we watch it with them matters. It matters which teams and which competitors we honor; it matters which courses of action we celebrate or censure. I hope that we, as a culture, can recover enough respect for the virtues of commitment and fidelity to stem the tide of opt-outs. If we can, then perhaps bowl games will once again be played by teams rather than motley assortments of players.