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The opt-out is a cop-out

There were bowl games galore this past week. Some of them were the run-up to the College Football Championship game. On every one of those fields, kids were playing hard for their teams … well, most of them.

This bowl season saw a rash of “opt-outs,” where players decide it is just too risky to play a postseason game with their team for fear it could hurt their chances in the upcoming National Football League (NFL) draft.

I understand the desire to play for millions of dollars a year in the NFL. At the same time, those opt-out players left their teams hanging while they took care of themselves. What happened to putting the team above yourself?

In this time of the transfer portal, big money for the use of a player’s name, image or likeness (NIL), and now opting out to take care of number one, I have an unpopular question: Have we raised a generation of self-centered, overly-entitled sissies?

In 2024, the College Football Playoffs expand to 12 teams. But as one major bowl game executive recently asked, “What if they threw the biggest national championship party ever but the best player(s) didn’t show up?”

In 2016, Leonard Fournette of Louisiana State University and Christian McCaffery of Stanford both decided to skip their postseason bowl games, Dennis Dodd writes at CBS. Both were expected to go early in the NFL draft, and the chance to miss earning great wealth was deemed too much to risk. Since then, opting out has become all too common.

Florida State (FSU) was opt-out central at the Orange Bowl this year. “The Seminoles played without their top two quarterbacks, top two running backs, top two receivers, starting tight end, three starting defensive linemen, two of three starting linebackers and three starting defensive backs,” ESPN recounts. “They were down 29 scholarship players in all.” FSU was routed 63-3 by Georgia.

“People need to see what happened tonight, and they need to fix this,” Georgia head coach Kirby Smart said afterward. “It’s very unfortunate that they have a good football team and a good football program and they’re in the position they’re in.”

Across the nation, top players told their teams that their own personal well-being was more important than a team victory. “I got mine. You get yours. Good luck fellas.”

There was a time in the not-so-distant past when the team meant more than anything. There was Rudy Ruettiger dressing out for just one home game for the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame, or young kids who grew up dreaming of playing for Bear Bryant, while others had visions of big fields like the Rose Bowl and the Superdome in that one extra bowl game. Football was that place where you learned the value of being an integral part of the team, and even when hurt, you begged to play just one more game with your team.

Football legend Peyton Manning did that. Raised in a football family, Manning played for the University of Tennessee. In 1996 – his junior season – Manning led the Southeastern Conference (SEC) with 243 pass completions and a 64% completion rate. The 1996 Citrus Bowl is legendary. By season’s end, Manning was a top contender for the Heisman Trophy and predicted to be a first-round NFL draft pick. He could leave Tennessee at the top of his game.

But in March 1997, Peyton Manning asked for a press conference. Wearing a coat and tie and working with notes prepared in advance, Manning said that he had sought wise counsel, prayed, and really wrestled with what to do. He made it clear this was a decision that he did not take lightly, while also speaking about how much college football and his teammates meant to him. He had made up his mind, he said, and would never look back. “I’m going to stay at the University of Tennessee,” he said. The crowd went wild.

With everything to lose, Manning returned to his college team for his senior year. He made no money from selling his name, image and likeness, and there was no transfer portal to a bigger school. In Manning’s senior year, his team rallied with him and went 10-1, beating Auburn for the SEC championship, and coming one game shy of finishing as the number-one team in the nation.

Manning was named as a first-team All-American and second overall for the Heisman that year. He blew away his stats from the prior season, finishing his college career with over 11,000 yards passing. He was a first-round draft pick and went on to become one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, receiving NFL Most Valuable Player five times, appearing in 14 Pro Bowls, and playing in four Super Bowls. Seven years after his senior year at Tennessee, the University retired his number. Today, one of the streets leading to Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium is named after him.

Funny how that all worked out. The idea of being with his team was all it took for one of the greatest players in football history to stay on. Manning could have left and no one would have faulted him. But he loved his team, and his team played their hearts out for him because of it.

We need more people who are willing to risk it all for the bigger picture. People who can say, “This is about more than just me.” That happens when we instill in our young men the idea that being a part of something still means something.

Opt-outs are cop-outs, and Coach Smart was right: “We’ve got to fix this.”

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