N’Keal Harry’s bowl decision is a cue college football should take from
Football is in flux. The NFL is starting to resemble the college game, embracing new-age quarterbacks and joystick offenses. College athletes are acting and sounding like professionals, shamelessly skipping bowl games to prepare for the NFL draft.
The lines are no longer blurred. They’re gone.
Start with N’Keal Harry’s withdrawal from ASU’s program, a star player forgoing an appearance in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Not long ago, this would’ve been scandalous news. We would’ve condemned a star player for bailing on his teammates at the apex of a special season. Especially given the dearth of optimism in our sporting landscape.
Not anymore. This season, there are 12 notable players sitting out bowl games. At least one key starter is missing from six of 11 major bowl games, including one from an SEC team. Three big-play wide receivers, a starting quarterback, the potential No. 1 pick in the draft and a player named “Greedy” are all sitting this one out.
It’s no longer a trend. It’s the new reality, right down to our tepid reaction.
We seem to understand Harry’s decision because it’s all business now, everything college football claims it is not. We understand the sport takes more than it gives from its best student-athletes. The Las Vegas Bowl means nothing to most casual fans. And because college football essentially forced Harry’s hand.
Look at the math. There were 129 programs eligible for 39 bowl games in 2018. That means 60 percent of the field stakes a claim to the current postseason, diluted to the point of irrelevance.
Bowl season has always been a cash grab for college football, but we are now in the age of individual empowerment. Young athletes no longer act like muted servants. Unless you’re playing on New Year’s Day or for a championship, there is little to be gained.
It’s a shame for ASU, which took the collegial path to Las Vegas. They rode in a bus. They stopped for milkshakes in Kingman, Ariz. Unlike Ohio State’s football team, which recently arrived for the Fiesta Bowl in a tricked-out, double-decker Boeing 747, this ASU team feels like a college program.
ASU is also an exception among teams playing football in December. The Sun Devils would gain a lot from a raucous postseason victory. Eight wins in Herm Edwards’ debut season would represent a monumental achievement. It would garner more national attention for a nascent program and more fuel for its recruiters, especially with an explosive performance in Las Vegas.
Harry could’ve made a huge difference. In November, he couldn’t conceive of leaving ASU’s program before the organic conclusion to his career.
“I just think about my teammates and how much work we put in,” Harry said. “I’ve sacrificed so much with these guys over the past couple years and I feel like it would be kind of disrespectful if I were to tap out, to give up on them.
“It’s really a team thing. I know they depend on me, I depend on them and we have each other’s backs always.”
That means Harry would rather be playing football, commemorating his journey at ASU. But his immediate future now depends on one number, the time he posts in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine. He needs recuperation, not attrition. He needs his legs to be firing when they break out the stopwatches. And we get it.
So much has changed in sports, from the way we scream on social media to how professional leagues now embrace legalized gambling. The way we view college athletes is no different, and it’s a reflection of how poorly we judge the leadership governing their talent.
An expanded playoff would help. So would a reduction in bowl games, fewer participation trophies and a level playing field for everyone. But it won’t be long before key players start skipping portions of the regular season or bailing on bad teams in the middle of the season.
College and football don’t belong in the same sentence. One is the academic pursuit of beauty and wisdom. The other is fueled by power, money and winning at all costs.
It’s time for the sport to take a cue from fans and players, and start living its truth.