Jake Butt on The Risk-Reward Analysis of Opting Out in College Football

Opting Out in College Football

In the college football world, the topic of opt-outs has been one of the most talked-about discussion during bowl season year-in and year-out. Soon-to-be NFL draftees such as Kayvon Thibodeaux, Kyle Hamilton and Kenny Pickett all decided not to participate in their school’s bowl games, attempting to preserve their health for the NFL combine and draft process. Some players are taking it a step further and opting out of specific Pro Day events or drills, hoping to limit their exposure to injury and keep their draft stock as high as possible. The influx of players opting out serves as a metaphor for the landscape of college football as a whole — a lot is changing. 

Now more than ever, social media is influencing college athletes. The new NIL rules perpetuate this as these star players can now create their own brand. But, the media outlets have the goal of selling stories and getting clicks on eye-catching titles. The topic of opt-outs is great for their content because stories can be spun in a way that assists these media sources in doing their job. Attaching a narrative to a player entering the draft can add a stigma to this athlete, a difficult label to shake off. Even tougher to shake off in the draft process, though, is an injury. 

These factors add to the complexity of the decisions these college athletes are faced with. In my senior season at Michigan, we were 10-2 after the regular season, and we were playing Florida State in the 2016 Orange Bowl in a top-ten matchup. Heading into this game, I didn’t even consider forgoing it for a couple of reasons. 

I had a strong sense of love and loyalty that made me want to play in the Orange Bowl. This was in regards to my school, teammates and the game of football, so it was important to me to represent Michigan one final time. I was also voted captain that season, so I felt accountable to be there for my teammates. I didn’t want to take their trust in me for granted, so the thought of opting out didn’t cross my mind. 

But my story isn’t one-size-fits-all; every player’s decision is unique. I was incredibly lucky that I didn’t have to worry about sending my mother rent money or providing for my family. Unfortunately, not everyone can say the same. I can’t knock another man for choosing the decision that’s best for him and his family. Who am I to tell someone else what’s best for them? 

When I chose to return for my senior season at Michigan, I took out a loss-of-value insurance policy as well as a total permanent disability insurance policy. According to the insurance company, I would have been an early second-round selection in the 2016 NFL Draft. After my injury, I was drafted by the Denver Broncos in the fifth round of the 2017 draft. This insurance policy helped recoup some of the lost value between these contracts upon being drafted. This was thanks to the loss-of-value insurance policy, which I would recommend to an NFL prospect projected to be a top-50 pick. Since the distribution of slotted draft contracts is heavily skewed right, this policy likely would not help players below this threshold. However, opting for total permanent disability insurance would be smart for a good number of athletes.

Like anything in life, there is risk associated with all decisions. This choice of whether to opt-out of a bowl game boils down to a risk-reward analysis. In terms of boosting draft stock, playing in the bowl game doesn’t do a whole lot to put your name on the map; that’s what the full season is for, not just one game. It’s also important to note that players entering the NFL with a preexisting injury aren’t placed on the Injured Reserve list. Instead, someone like myself is put on the Non-Football Injury list if the injury didn’t occur while in the NFL, regardless of whether it was suffered in college football. 

If you get hurt while in the NFL, you’re placed on the Injured Reserve list. You still receive workers’ compensation, disability and future disability coverage, a year towards your pension, coverage for future injury complications, and you get paid; essentially, you’re protected. If you get hurt in college, the school only has to pay for the surgery. Again, these are just some of the factors that illustrate how complex such a choice is for a 20-year-old to make. 

Seeing how some college coaches also left to take new contracts before their school’s bowl game only exacerbates my feelings towards those slandering these athletes. These coaches are making decisions that are best for them and their families — why can’t the athletes that are suiting up do the same? Just like with the players, I can’t blame the coaches who are doing what they feel is best for them and their family. 

Adaptability is so important towards being successful in today’s world. Don’t knock a player for opting out of a bowl game. Instead, adapt and find the next player who will contribute. Programs should want players who have to make these tough decisions. You should want players who can leave for the NFL after just three years. These are signs of talent. 

Being able to adapt is prevalent because so much is changing in college football. As the eighth College Football Playoff recently crowned Georgia as champions, there is chatter about a possible expansion of this postseason format. It’s time that this is treated like a business since at the end of the day, that’s what this is. 

The way I think we are headed is to cut some of the non-conference games. Instead of having a handful of contests with nearly certain results, let’s have big-time non-conference matchups and remove the fluff games in the schedule. If we also get rid of the conference championships, the playoffs can expand another two rounds, making the national championship even more coveted.

Because college football is a business for the higher-ups, we should treat it the same for the players who are NFL prospects. These NFL-bound players who participate should be paid for doing so. At the very least, these well-known players should be given insurance that will range from $20,000 to $50,000. If the insurance is approached as a full tournament instead of game-by-game, this will avoid one game having to pay this themselves.

Just like in the NFL, making compensation a meritocracy is key. But also like the NFL, we need to create the best product possible. The best players need to be compensated because they’ve earned it. By doing this, we’re making every game matter, which is the direction that college football is currently heading. 

Ethan Useloff contributed to this story

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