Bowl season kicks off on Saturday for college football with the AutoNation Cure Bowl between the Tulane Green Wave and the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns. It will be the first of 40 bowl games during the next three weeks as the college football season comes to a close.

It will be the last time that fans will see certain players like Drew Lock and Trace McSorley before the quarterbacks look to start an NFL career. It is also the last time that fans will get to see coaches like Urban Meyer roam the Ohio State sideline before his retirement becomes official. 

But fans tuning into bowl games will see a few of college football’s top players skipping out on the bowl games to prepare for the NFL Draft. Quarterback Will Grier, linebacker Germaine Pratt, tight end Noah Fant, wide receiver Deebo Samuel and defensive lineman Ed Oliver are just some of the many players skipping out on the bowl games. 

The trend of sitting out bowl games really took traction in 2016 when Leonard Fournette of LSU and Christian McCaffrey of Stanford sat out their bowl games to avoid injuries that could have potentially hurt the running backs’ chances in the 2017 NFL Draft. The two were already considered locks to be drafted in the first round. Unless there would have been an injury, any performance in a bowl would not have changed the draft stock much for the two. Eventually, Fournette was drafted No. 4 to the Jacksonville Jaguars and McCaffrey went No. 8 to the Carolina Panthers. Injuries still hinder Fournette but McCaffrey has already turned into one of the NFL’s premier running backs and a bright spot on a Carolina Panthers team that has struggled in the second half of the year. 

The topic has sparked debate with the players being called “quitters” and “selfish” because they looked to avoid injuries. Although these two players have come out and said they would have played again, Jaylon Smith is examples why players are sitting out. Smith was a top linebacker at Notre Dame during the 2015 season. He was considered to be a top-five pick, potentially the No. 1 pick. Smith and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish took on the Ohio State Buckeyes in the BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s Day 2016. Smith tore the medial collateral ligament and anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee early in the game when he tried to recover a fumble. The one play instantly cost Smith millions of dollars. Teams were concerned about his potential recovery. The projected top pick was now projected to go anywhere from the second to the sixth round with the majority having him going in the third or fourth round.

Smith ended up being drafted early in the second round by the Dallas Cowboys thanks to the team being unsuccessful in trading their No. 34 and No. 67 overall picks to try and draft quarterback Paxton Lynch by moving back into the first round. Smith signed a four-year contract with $6.5 million guaranteed. Comparatively, cornerback Jalen Ramsey was selected with the fifth pick by the Jaguars and his contract has $22.9 million guaranteed. Smith lost out on more than $18 million compared to Ramsey for one single play. Smith missed the entire 2016 season as he recovered. He now is having a breakout year with the Cowboys nearly three years after the injury.

Smith said in a recent interview with Sports Illustrated that he would make the same decision to play again.

“Being a competitor and a captain of my Notre Dame team, it was important for me to go out the right way,” Smith said. “It was a premiere game, the Fiesta Bowl vs. Ohio State. There was a lot of talent in that game. We all wanted to compete. So the decision I made to play in that game, I would make the same decision.”

While Smith said he would have played in the game again, his injury started a shift. For some competitors, they will still play. Others will avoid it and skip out. Are the players like Fournette and Fant wrong for doing this? No. Bowl games are a glorified exhibition game. Winning a bowl game means a bigger payout for the school and bragging rights, but Grier isn’t losing out on anything for missing the Camping World Bowl. West Virginia fans should be bummed they don’t get one more game with him, but it’s nothing to lose sleep over. He was already going to be gone. He still is one of the best quarterbacks in team history and while I am sure there are teammates of his are bummed, I bet most understand. 

Fans need to do the same. I have seen fans say the players should pay back their scholarship for skipping a single game. Yes. Make the player, who made the school millions, pay the school their own money because they didn’t want to risk an injury in a game that will make their school more money. 

Football is a business. These players are just trying to better their careers. It’s not ruining the “love of the game” because they sat out. That already happened when we have meaningless bowl games between 6-6 teams at half-empty NFL stadiums. If you want to see this trend go down then expand the playoff and/or eliminate the extra bowl games. We don’t need 6-6 Minnesota and 7-5 Georgia Tech playing in the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit. Will I still watch it? Yeah, probably. But it isn’t something I would miss if it was gone. Most of the players skipping bowls are in smaller ones like these. There are a few players like Rashan Gary of Michigan who are skipping the Peach Bowl, but there are not any players sitting out the playoff games. Expanding the playoff to eight teams probably means Michigan would be in. They are in and Gary plays. 

Also, the same people that call for the players being held accountable should ask for coaches to be held accountable. Appalachian State is scheduled to play Middle Tennessee on Saturday and head coach Scott Satterfield won’t coach the team. He took the Louisville job and now the Mountaineers will be led by Mark Ivey for the game. A buyout does have to be negotiated with these situations but I don’t see the same backlash at this from fans. Why not? He is leaving the team too. It is time that we let the athletes make their decisions and let them be. If they want to risk it and get hurt, awesome. If they want to sit out, good for them. It is their decision and I hope they are happy with it regardless of what happens. 

Luke Peterson is the sports editor of the Leavenworth Times. Contact him at lpeterson@leavenworthtimes.com