Michael Arace: Old man Kirk Herbstreit wrong to bark at opt-outs on ESPN GameDay

Michael Arace
The Columbus Dispatch

Kirk Herbstreit, the former Ohio State quarterback and captain who has succeeded Keith Jackson as the voice of college football, on Saturday said something he should not have voiced. 

Maybe Herbie was tired. He did ESPN GameDay on Friday in South Florida and was in the booth for the Georgia-Michigan College Football Playoff semifinal in the Orange Bowl that night. Then, he flew overnight to LA to do another GameDay on Saturday morning and was in the booth for the Ohio State-Utah Rose Bowl

Presumably, he got paid OT.

On the second GameDay, speaking on the subject of players opting out of non-CFP bowl games, Herbstreit said to colleague Desmond Howard: 

“What’s the difference as a player when saying these games are ‘meaningless’ when, Des, we played in ‘meaningless’ games. I mean I know you guys (Michigan) were here a lot. I just don’t understand. 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? 

“I don’t know if changing (the playoff) or expanding it is going to change anything. I really don’t. I just think this era of football player just doesn’t love football.” 

Oh, Herbie. 

Hours later, he took to Twitter to say, “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.” 

Well, dude, that’s exactly what you did. You generalized and lumped them all in one category. Sorry if anyone listened to you.  

His inference remains clear enough: Those who opted out of bowl games — such as Ohio State’s Nicolas Petit-Frere, Haskell Garrett, Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson — don't love football. If they did, they’d have exposed themselves to injury, and potentially altered their draft status and their future earning power, and played in the Rose Bowl for the glory of the great state university. And ESPN.

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It is at times such as this when one should conjure the late Al McGuire, formerly the voice of college basketball. McGuire was also a Hall of Fame coach. When he was at Marquette, the New Jersey Nets offered his center, Jim Chones, nearly $2 million to make an early jump to the ABA. McGuire said: 

“I looked into my refrigerator and I looked into Jimmy’s and I said, ‘Jimmy, take the money.’ ” 

These days, it’s just common sense. If you are a college football player with the talent to play at the next level, and you are facing a “meaningless” bowl game, opting out must be considered as an insurance policy. The Rose Bowl is a wonderful thing, but the NFL draft could determine what your family’s refrigerator looks like for the rest of your life. 

Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith (blown knee in 2016 Fiesta Bowl) and Michigan tight end Jake Butt (blown knee in 2017 Orange Bowl) are case studies in how to lose millions of dollars for the love of the game. One can only hope that Mississippi quarterback Matt Corral (rolled ankle in the Sugar Bowl on Saturday night) is fit enough for the NFL combine, which ESPN will cover with hours of programming. Stay tuned. 

There are millions of fans who think like Herbstreit. They want to see the best players play postseason games for their alma maters. That’s natural. The problem with Herbstreit questioning any player’s love for the game is he works for ESPN, which has been inventing meaningless games for all or parts of five decades. 

In 1984, after a Supreme Court decision allowed schools to negotiate their own TV rights, ESPN began airing live college football games. By 2007, ESPN networks were airing more than 450 games a year. The company was on its way to owning and operating the ACC Network and SEC Network, cutting rights deals with every Power Five conference and orchestrating an incredibly lucrative playoff system. 

This process included an expansion of the bowl season to create content during a typically slow time of year. There were 16 bowl games in 1981, before the Worldwide Leader got into the business. In 2001, there were 25 bowl games. Ten more were added over the next 10 years.

Now, there are 44 bowl games. ESPN and its affiliates, ESPN2 and ABC, own and/or have the broadcast rights to all but three of them. This near-monopoly grosses billions for Disney, the parent company. 

Herbstreit, whose base salary is reported to be around $2 million a year, is the biggest star of the show. He’s the face of the corporation turned college football into an ATM machine that spits money at everyone except the players. 

Under this system, Oklahoma and Texas are compelled to join the SEC, and, similarly, Petit-Frere, Garrett, Olave and Wilson are compelled to sit out the Rose Bowl. Presumably, these players don't have the wherewithal to burn their houses down for a tax deduction.


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