August 7, 2020

NFL Prospects Are Smart to Opt-Out of 2020 College Football Season

As of Thursday’s opt-out deadline, 69 players have decided to sit out the 2020 NFL season because of concerns related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. However, those 69 players won’t be the only ones who won't be on the field this fall.

Several college football players have already announced that they won’t be suiting up for their team during the 2020 season. Virginia Tech cornerback Caleb Farley was the first to declare that he would sit out the season and begin preparing for the 2021 NFL Draft on his own. Since then, Miami’s Greg Rousseau, Penn State’s Micah Parsons, Minnesota’s Rashod Bateman, Purdue’s Rondale Moore and several others have followed Farley’s lead and decided not to play.

While this trend puts a damper on the college football season and brings into question whether or not it’s safe for the NCAA to allow fall sports, there should be no question that players who are already on the NFL’s radar were wise to opt-out of the campaign.

A Bowl Game Isn't Everything

In recent years, there has been a growing trend of top prospects sitting out their team’s bowl game to avoid injury and prepare for the upcoming draft. For fringe players who hope to get selected in the late rounds of the NFL Draft, a bowl game can be a great place to gain exposure. However, for certified stars who have at least a full season or two worth of game film as a starter, one bowl game isn’t going to make much of a difference in how NFL teams evaluate them. While pundits may criticize the move and fans may express their disappointment, it’s hard to argue against sitting out a bowl game being the smart choice for individual players who have nothing left to prove as college players and don’t want to risk an injury that could hurt their draft stock. Take former Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith, for example. The projected top-five pick decided to play in the Fiesta Bowl and he subsequently tore his ACL and LCL. 

That trend in sitting out bowl games has provided the perfect precedent for players opting-out of a season that will be unequivocally changed by the ongoing pandemic. In fairness, sitting out one bowl game isn’t exactly the same as choosing not to play an entire season, but the principle remains the same. While a few players like Auburn’s Chandler Wooten are sitting out the 2020 season because of family concerns. Wooten is due to welcome a son in September. The likes of Farley, Rousseau, Parsons, Bateman and Moore have done enough over their collegiate career to secure a shot at playing in the NFL.

If making it to the NFL is their ultimate goal, they’ve done enough to make that happen and should be prudent about any risks they take that could get in the way of that. In the case of players like Parsons and Moore, they are on track to graduate in December and will leave college with a degree and chance to play in the NFL.

Nothing to Gain and Everything to Lose

Unfortunately, the equation is different for top prospects than it is for younger players with dreams of playing in the NFL but have yet to prove that they deserve the chance. Players selected in the first round or two of various mock drafts have little or nothing to gain by playing the season. Slightly improving their draft stock is not worth the risk of playing the season under the current conditions. For the players who have established themselves as potential premium picks, the risk is not worth the reward. For them, the decision should be easy and it should be understood by NFL teams. Meanwhile, the choice is a little more difficult for players with NFL aspirations who are yet to make their mark at the college level.

The risk of injury is already significant for college football players. However, they signed up to play football and understand the risks that present themselves on every play, which is why sitting out a bowl game at the end of a long season has become a trendy option for top prospects. But nobody signed their letter of intent expecting to play college football during a global pandemic. The risks are different from playing a normal football game. What's worse is that the risks aren’t even fully known. While some people have contracted the virus and been fine, there are no guarantees of a quick recovery or a recovery without long-term complications. 

Boston Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez, who is sitting out the 2020 MLB season due to lingering heart issues after contracting COVID-19, should serve as a cautionary tale for all athletes.

For those who stand to lose a lot if they have their life and career impacted by the virus in a significant way, there might not be enough to gain to make it worth the risk, which is the exact situation for many college football players who will be in NFL training camps next summer whether they play the 2020 season or not.

They're Being Used As Lab Rats

The final piece of the equation for top college football players is whether they trust the protocols in place. Some players, speaking anonymously, have compared themselves to lab rats, believing that conference presidents and athletic directors will push forward with games because universities can’t afford to cancel the season and lose revenue that games produce. In that sense, the people making decisions might care more about the bottom line than the health and safety of the players on the field who are responsible for generating the revenue.

If any college football is uncomfortable playing, sitting out the season should be viewed as the smart choice, regardless of their NFL potential.

After all, there are countless risks associated with playing during a pandemic. Can players guarantee that their school will maintain strict testing procedures throughout the season? If practices are temporarily shut down, will players have enough preseason conditioning to play without risking injuries? Will players report symptoms if they fear losing playing time or a starting spot while being quarantined for two weeks? These are all legitimate concerns and more than enough to make any player think twice about playing college football this season.

In the end, each athlete needs to make their own decision about playing or not. The choice is not so easy for athletes who have yet to make a dime from their athletic career outside of a full college scholarship. Some have more to gain than others by choosing to play, but every player who is opting-out is doing so for a good reason. In that sense, they are making a smart choice and nobody should be questioning the decision of any college football player to sit out the 2020 season.

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