Gordon Monson: Utah players who opt out of the Rose Bowl should be celebrated, not criticized

The Utes will be without stars Dalton Kincaid and Clark Phillips III in Pasadena.

(Phelan M. Ebenhack | AP) Utah cornerback Clark Phillips III (1) follows a play during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Florida, Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022, in Gainesville, Fla.

In the zeal for the glory of the team, for the glory of whoever or whatever folks root for, the real objective at hand gets swamped in the partisan swells, gets called selfish by those who are disappointed.

There’s no “I” in team, after all, but there are two in egotistical.

It’s become obvious, at least in certain cases, that bowl games are more important to some fans than they are to some of the players on the teams into which those fans pour so much energy and emotion.

Those players, usually the ones protecting or preserving themselves for a shot at the NFL, spend their time in college working, competing, improving as a means of — like most students in university classrooms — setting themselves up for a rewarding, lucrative professional career.

That’s what college is for, along with participating in so many other extracurriculars that decades on mature adults will look back at and wonder, “What the hell was I thinking?”

Utah — like a whole lot of other teams from other schools in other bowls — has a few key players who will miss the Rose Bowl game, foremost among them Clark Phillips III and Dalton Kincaid. Players don’t come any more key than those. They are the best of the best Utah has in its program. Without those two, there’s little chance that the Utes would be heading to Pasadena in the weeks ahead.

And now, at the pinnacle of another wondrous Utah season, a championship already won, the NFL beckoning like Marlene Dietrich standing in a backlit doorway, heel turned, lips puckered, the Utes stars head for that doorway, not for the Granddaddy’s verdant, historic field, at least not to actually play on it.

There are reasons for succumbing to that temptation, reasons that are explanations as much as excuses, whether they center on healing injuries or keeping secure ambition that is already wholly healthy. As for the former, the hardcore fan asks, if a dinged absent player’s NFL chances depended on it, would he make himself available to play in the bowl game? Thing is, those chances do not depend on it, not according to the info those players are getting.

This is not to criticize Phillips or Kincaid, or any other players on any other teams who are fortunate enough to find themselves in such advantageous positions. It is to concur with them. They’ve trained and sweated and sacrificed and made the most of their talents so far to be where they are. And they’ve helped their teams win, again and again.

Are they bailing on their schools, on their coaches, on their teammates, on their fans, focusing only on the name on the back of their uniforms, not the name on the front? Bailing is a curious word. Maybe they are. But they also are readying themselves for their next step, the step for which they have dreamed for as long as they can remember.

It’s not a character flaw, it’s a calculated, canny decision.

Not everyone sees it that way, not the zealots.

An example is a recently received email from Davis County that read as follows:

“With the NFL luring away so many bowl-bound players, why should I care to watch college football bowl games any longer? The Utes won’t be at full strength for the Rose Bowl, and I wonder how many other games will have asterisk notations. No matter the rationale, I bet bowl sponsors are wondering how many fewer eyeballs they’re still paying for. I know I won’t be watching.”

It’s a point of view shared by others. But by how many? Not sure. They don’t like this trend afflicting a team sport, a sport that celebrates and champions itself as being all about team, for varying reasons and to varying degrees. Another correspondence called opting out “self-centered, self-absorbed, narcissistic and inconsiderate.”

Whether bowls could fight fire with fire, or real money with potential money, via NIL deals, finding a way to lure players into participating in bowls by way of financial compensation, is a gray area worth keeping an eye on. The NCAA has clarified that companies running bowls can’t pay for play, but what about companies either associated with the bowls or even other companies that could benefit from an athlete’s endorsement, say, a hotel chain or some other entity?

It remains a vague realm, vague as to what can be done and vague as to what’s worth doing for those who could make payouts and those who might receive them.

Here’s an at-the-end-of-the-day shock: Money — or opportunity — makes the world go round, not raw loyalty to a school or team for which a lot of people cheer, about which a lot of people care.

Point is, almost all college students — from accounting majors to athletes set on playing pro sports — are in college to better position themselves for their future.

When it comes to ardent supporters of college sports teams, in this case football teams in bowl games, and, in this more specific case the Utes, some will be angered, disturbed even, by star players opting out. Many, though, completely get it. They appreciate what the athletes have done in helping their favored team win games. They’d rather they play, but if they don’t, well …

Those are the Utah fans who not only are going to have tons of fun in Pasadena — or watching from home on TV — regardless of who takes the field and who doesn’t, they’ll wish the guys who don’t suit up success however they can find it.