What Happens When College Football Players and Programs Stop Pretending that They Care?

In my final new Dorf on Law column of 2023, "Some Light Entertainment from the College Football Scene," I anticipated that my Michigan Wolverines would again under-perform on the big stage of the College Football Playoff.  Led by their coach Jim Harbaugh, after all, they had played quite poorly in losing their semifinal games in 2022 and 2021.  Prior to this season's January 1 semifinal, I therefore expected history to repeat itself, which led me to write this: "My predictions: Alabama 31, Michigan 13; and Harbaugh signs an NFL contract the next day."

The first prediction was wrong, and the second prediction is wrong at least as a matter of timing.  That is, even giving myself latitude for the fact that they played another game, Harbaugh did not resign the next day.  As of this writing, in fact, he has not left his current job in Ann Arbor.  So, I was completely wrong and at best mostly wrong.  Not a good track record.  On the other hand, I was unexpectedly happy on January 1 and January 8.  Cool?  Meh.

Here, I want to talk about one of the other issues that I discussed in my "Some Light Entertainment ..." piece, where I noted the spectacle that followed the selection committee's decision not to include Florida State in the four-team playoff.  It did not seem worth it to spend much time defending the committee's decision, which was at the very least defensible under its rules, and I honestly thought it was the right call.

My attention in the column was thus focused not so much on the "historic" snub of an undefeated conference champion (which I merely mocked) but on the involvement of Florida's political class in the freakout.  The state's attorney general launched an antitrust investigation of the playoff system, and my governor "set aside" one million dollars of public money to sue the playoff committee.

All of that was rather humorous, and even though Florida has real needs that its politicians should be addressing, the fact is that everyone is better off if DeSantis and his Republican cohorts waste their time overreacting to football controversies.  That is time and money that they might otherwise use to continue their attacks on LGBTQ+ people, racial minorities, and women.  The real problems in the state that need to be addressed are in large part caused by the governor and his ruling party, so there is no reason to think that they would even try to solve those problems.  Best to let them pander to low-information voters.

I do, however, think that there is an interesting aspect to the FSU story that I did not address in my pre-Christmas column.  Indeed, what happened next has possibly set the stage for the entire sport to unravel.

The next-most-prestigious college bowl game this year was the Orange Bowl, where the Sunshine State's own #5 ranked team was matched against the #6 two-time champion Georgia team.  Surely, FSU would show up to make a statement, right?  After all, their argument was that the committee had wrongly demoted them in light of their star quarterback's season-ending injury (a consideration that the committee's governing documents authorize it to take into account).  These aggrieved, motivated young men would definitely, absolutely show up to make a statement, right?

Not so much: Georgia 63 - FSU 3.  Why did that happen?  To hear the FSU partisans tell it, their players justifiably decided en masse that the bowl game was meaningless, so they were not going to bother playing in it.  Indeed, twenty or so FSU players decided not to play.  On the other hand, a bunch of Georgia's top players also opted out of the game (which I will discuss in more detail below).  But to be clear, it was not as if the remaining players on Georgia's roster were thought to be sixty points better than FSU's remaining players, nearly all of whom had been aggressively recruited by other top programs.

Something else was going on, and it does not look good for FSU.  After all, their own apologists are not even hiding what happened but are in fact offering it as not only an explanation but a defensible justification.  "We were miffed, so we refused to play."  This way, of course, they did not have to face the possibility of showing up to try to prove something and then falling short.  This is what we tell kids never to do: quit when things go against you.

Moreover, this all happened in the broader context in which FSU has threatened to leave their conference because they think that they should get a disproportionate share of the money that the conference receives for media rights.  Having agreed to play by the conference's rules, they instead decided that they did not like the outcome, and they are trying to take their ball and go home.

One of the platitudes of sports is that they "build character."  That FSU's administration and coaching staff did nothing when their players quit on each other -- and on their own fans -- is an indication of the kind of character that is being modeled in the state's capital.  Even worse, the university and the state's politicians are telling their young charges that being sore losers is what life is all about.  This was, in a word, classless.

Honestly, if the Orange Bowl had refused to pay FSU's share of the money for playing the game, I would have thought that was the right decision.  And should the fans who bought tickets, traveled to the game, and spent big on hotel rooms and other items, be reimbursed by FSU?  That is obviously not going to happen, but this was such a major breach of norms and expectations that it could arguably amount to fraud.  Again, the defense from FSU's apologists is that it was the committee that committed a major breach of norms and expectations.  That is nonsense, however, because the committee in fact did what it was supposed to do and followed its procedures; but even if the committee did something wrong, FSU's response was to make matters worse.  When they go low, FSU said, we go lower.

But there is much more to be said about those norms and expectations.  People who buy season tickets for NFL teams do so in the knowledge that the last game of the season might be meaningless to one or both teams -- sometimes the last two or even three games.  And this is not only games where both teams have been eliminated from the playoffs.  Imagine that Team 1 is locked into the top seed for the playoffs.  Team 1 is playing at home and would usually be favored over Team 2, but Team 1 "sits the starters" for the game, effectively throwing the game.  The home fans showed up to cheer for their team, but they saw their team try to lose.  There are even times when a Team 3 misses the playoffs when Team 2 beats Team 1, because of the strange rules of tie-breakers.  Seems unfair.

As with all such things, however, we are back to norms and expectations.  If everyone thinks that NFL teams play to win every game, then it is a breach for a team not to do so.  If everyone knows that some games will be glorified scrimmages, however, then there is no breach.  Ticket buyers know it.  Bettors know it.  Networks know it.

Moreover, the norms at the college level truly have been changing.  In his inimitably incoherent way, my governor managed to almost make a good point or two by saying this:

Football’s changed where you have, like, you get paid for name, image and likeness and stuff, which we supported in Florida. If people are going to make money off you, like, whatever. But now it’s like, they sit out the bowl games and they do all this other stuff and a lot of Florida State’s players didn’t even play. We’ve got to do something about that. I don’t know if that’s the right thing.

I have no doubt that he was speaking the truth with that last sentence, but what about all the stuff and stuff that he was failing to articulate?  It used to be the case that every college starter was expected to play every game, most definitely including bowls (except for injured players, of course).  Within the last ten years or so, however, this has changed.  No one was surprised that the projected top draft pick, Caleb Williams of USC, opted out of the Holiday Bowl against Louisville.  For the same brutal reasons that NFL teams sit starters when they can, aspiring pro players have come to understand that the bowls are exhibition games that could end their careers before they even get started.

One consequence of this is that the competition between conferences to have the best bowl record each year is now meaningless.  It used to be a big deal to say that the SEC, Pac 12 (rest in peace), or another conference had the best record in a season's bowls.  There were quirks to the matchups, but there was meaning to those games.

This year, however, what conclusion can people draw from Ohio State's 14-3 loss to Missouri in the Cotton Bowl, or Penn State's 38-25 loss to Mississippi in the Peach Bowl?  Ohio State's starting quarterback had already transferred to another team, and the backup was badly injured at the beginning of the bowl game.  A true freshman came in, and the offense disappeared.  On the other hand, Penn State just looked terrible against Mississippi.  The point is not that this is bad or good.  It is simply that things are different, and the conclusions that we used to be able to draw are now muddled.

At what point will the norms change such that players opt out of regular season games?  For example, after Penn State had lost to both Ohio State and Michigan this season, they were essentially playing for pride.  Not just the players but the coaches might well have said, "You know what?  We shouldn't risk injury to this guy who we plan on playing next year."

And just to push it a bit further, at what point will entire teams simply refuse even to "play out the string"?  The NCAA, conferences, and networks could try to force them to play, but specific performance is disfavored in contract law for a reason.  Players can simply go through the motions, and at some point fan interest would disappear.  If both teams are out of contention for the playoffs, would even storied rivalry games -- USC-UCLA, Auburn-Alabama, Ohio State-Michigan -- become so uninteresting to everyone that they would not even be played?

It is apparently no longer acceptable to say that context matters, but context always matters.  What FSU did in the current context is so far out of the realm of accepted behavior that it deserves all of the criticism that it is receiving, and then some.  If the context changes, however, we could soon see everyone deciding not to play meaningless games -- not because they are sulking or protesting but simply because they understand that what they are being asked to do is ridiculous.

At that point, we could stumble into what would amount to a nationwide tournament each year in which fewer games are played each week, because as teams lose for the third time, they will know that there is no point.  This could cause chaos, of course, because losing teams would be withdrawing from games that the other team still wants to play, but even that can be finessed if everyone knows in advance what the new norms and expectations are.  That is how tournament brackets work.

The ultimate possibility, of course, is that everyone will suddenly realize that none of this matters.  In the 1983 movie "War Games," a teenager starts playing what he thinks is a video game called "Global Thermonuclear War."  The big reveal in that movie is (spoiler alert): "The only winning move is not to play."  Now that people are starting to think about college football in such unusually honest terms, fewer and fewer parents are allowing their kids to play tackle football.  Will we ever reach the point that the logic of avoiding injuries causes the entire sport to consume itself?  Unlikely, but not out of the question.