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What Are Bowl Games For?

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hint: they are not for you so stop whining about who is playing in them

Rose Bowl Game - Oklahoma v Georgia Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Andrew Thomas and Isaiah Wilson are not going to play in the Sugar Bowl. They will sit out and take their talents to the 2020 NFL Draft. This decision and all other comparable decisions by players forgoing their last game in order to avoid risking injury can be controversial.

You know what?

I think all of you Traditionalists are right.

Players who sit out bowl games are quitting on their team. They are a sad and clear reminder of a culture of self-obsession whose ultimate end is an erosion of American values. Ultimately, any of them who sit out a bowl game should have their names stricken from—HAHA I ALMOST GOT THROUGH IT.

None of that is true! Not even a little bit!

I think the reason people make this argument is that they have a mistaken sense of what bowl games are for. Like, why do we play Bowl Games? What is the point?

Here are a few reasons:

REASON 1: $$$$$$$CASH$$$$$$$

Bowl Games were once how we decided National Championships. And I don’t mean that we used to just call the National Championship Game, “the Rose Bowl” for example (even though we did do that at one point).

No, it used to be that all the bowl games just went on as usual at the end of the season with teams selected based on their conference tie-in’s. And then, at the end of Bowl szn, the AP voters and the voters in other polls would just declare who the National Champ was. Eat your heart out, UCF! You coulda been a contender.

That doesn’t happen now!

But the one thing that still persists is this: THE ONLY REASON WE PLAY THESE GAMES IS BECAUSE OF MONEY.

That’s it. That’s the whole reason.

We play these games because they make people money.

They make the bowl committee money. They make the participating institutions money. They make the brands that bear their name money. They make the town where the bowl is being hosted money, especially the people in the town that own the stadium where the bowl is being played.

Again, this does not always work perfectly. Sometimes school’s think they are going to make money but they don’t. Or sometimes brands think that they will make a lot of money off recognition but, in fact, do not recoup their investment. Or sometimes localities think they will make bank off of a big set of traveling fans but then the teams picked to be in the bowl both stink or don’t want to be there and so no one actually goes to the game.

The point is that people THINK they will make money and a lot of it.

But, over the years, we have convinced ourselves that there are other reasons that bowl games should happen and also matter. Like...

REASON 2: REWARD THE PLAYERS

The outcry about players sitting out bowl games has always been odd to me because the only real justification we have for the bowls is that they are an end of the season award for the players.

Even back when the National Championship was decided by the BIG traditional bowl games—think Rose, Cotton, Sugar, Orange, etc—this was still the basic idea of why you should still play the smaller bowls. There weren’t that many of them back then, but still, that was the point—it was a cool game that the players got to play in at the end of the year in a cool place, usually somewhere warmer so that the B1G could escape the White Walkers.

But today, in our era where no bowls that aren’t associated with the CFP Semifinals mean diddly squat the main thing people fall back on is it is a nice reward for the players!

Are you people happy that players get extravagant goody bags or get to go on shopping sprees at Belk?

No! They hate that! That’s not we meant by reward! We didn’t mean stuff of any value, we meant more practices and maybe a day on the beach!

Speaking of more practices....

REASON 3: REWARD THE COACHES

You spend so much time running practice and watching film and developing these players into “good young men” that you didn’t have any time to go back home and jump off your diving board into the swimming pool full of money that you got for doing all that.

You need a reward!

Guess what it is?

More practices!

Now, does it make any damn sense at all to let the teams that get over .500 and into bowl be the ones that get 15 extra practices while all of the teams that sucked ass all year don’t get ANY extra practices?

NOT EVEN A LITTLE BIT BUT NO ONE CARES WHAT YOU THINK THIS GAME MAKES NO SENSE!

It would make way more sense if the teams that didn’t make bowl games got to get like, I dunno, 20 extra practices or something, so that they could not suck ass next year. A bit like how in the NFL if you finish low in the standings you get the higher draft pick so that you can (theoretically) get better next year.

But that would “make sense” and be “reasonable” and we don’t really do that ‘round here son.

On the flip side it would also keep players away from the illusion that anything like “family” or “friends” or “holidays” exist because they would be at practices which is good!

REASON 4: REWARD THE FANS

OH I’M SORRY YOU DON’T WANT TO SPEND A WEEKEND IN JANUARY IN SHREVEPORT DODGING DRUNK DRIVERS AND STREET PREACHERS???? THAT’S NOT WHAT YOUR ANALYTIC DATA FROM ALEXA TOLD US. LOOKS LIKE SOMEONE IS BEING A BIT CONTRARY TO THEIR TREND LINE HUH?

To be fair, there are some great bowl trips out there.

If you have the money.

And that’s the rub now. The bowls are just way way way too expensive to be a viable attraction, save for a higher income strata of fan OR the fans that haven’t already wiped out their account donating $12K and a kidney to the Hartman Fund in order to acquire 300-level seats.

They have begun to become more and more corporate in both their nature and their attendance with local business and bigger companies being the only entities with the type of free floating capital able to drop $400 dollars on two tickets to the Tropical Smoothie Café Bowl.

That bowl name is absolutely real by the way. However, the ticket prices are made up. For that game tickets are currently sitting at about $8.

Still, the point here is that travel expenses, lodging, and tickets to a game that does not matter in any sense beyond pride sounds a lot less like a very counter-intuitive sort of reward, unless you have the sort of disposable income where you plan on taking a vacation during the Christmas break.

If so, good for you.

But not a lot of folks these days do, I suspect.


Ultimately, bowl games aren’t really for anything other than boosting the TV numbers of sports networks that have to have something to keep your eyes on the TV while you’re hanging out with family over the holidays.

The fact that it is a kind of tradition benefits the networks here.

I mean, I usually don’t want to watch the Lions play football (forgive me, Matty Staff).

But on Thanksgiving?

I’m hyped to see these Detroit boyz show out and then lose painfully. Makes me feel seen.

So if that is really all they are for, then why the controversy over choosing not to participate in one?

I think it boils down to two basic moral questions: 1.) How far does a player’s commitment to their team extend? and 2.) Is it wrong to refuse the “reward” of a bowl game?

Let me start with the second one.

You probably suspect my answer is “no” and, indeed, it is!

But let me explain my reasons.

Imagine you’re offered two things:

First package—you get offered a chance to go on a trip with your friends and people you love, you get to fulfill all of your obligations to these people (which feels great!), and, on top of that, you get a whole bunch of free stuff.

BUT, you can also have the second package—a chance at a new job that will pay you millions and millions of dollars (maybe) over the course of, say, 7-10 years. This will literally change your life, but, in order to have it, YOU CANNOT GET SICK. And it just so happens that one of your friends going on the cool trip I just talked about has a cold. You might not catch it! Very low chance! You’ve been taking supplements and everything. But you COULD catch it. Now, if you do get the cold lane #2 isn’t closed forever. But you will make way less money overall than you would have if you just don’t get sick.

Is there any argument that choosing option two is wrong? Or even that it is actually the less prudent choice?

I really can’t see one.

Which means that the real source of the controversy is question #1: how far does your commitment to your college team extend?

Not to quote the Good Place on you but you can almost see a battle between Consequentialism and Deontology here.

Consequentialism, the moral outlook that says you judge an action’s rightness based on the consequences (i.e. will it do more good than the other option for the most people?), seems to look at the Bowl Game Choice and say that the small wrong of breaking your commitment to the team outweighs the chance of gaining life-changing wealth with which you can do a whole host of good things. The potential good consequences of option two far exceed the bad consequences of forgoing option one.

Deontology, however, says that there are certain actions that are good, regardless of the consequences, and the task of ethical people is to inquire into the nature of the universe so as to find these eternal laws and keep them.

So if you’re wondering how on earth anybody could ever be mad about a player choosing to do what is best for themselves, well, here it is!

Breaking your commitment to the team is just wrong. Keeping your commitments to the team is just good, regardless of the consequences.

If you get hurt? Yeah that sucks, but you did the right thing, and that is what is most important.

I have some sympathy for this argument, and I appreciate how it is at least based in some kind of moral framework for evaluating other actions as well.

But then, there’s the trouble, right? When you start comparing it to other actions it seems to me that sitting out a bowl game can’t be on the list of true goods of the universe?

It feels, well, like a kinda childish way of treating the complexity of the Bowl Game Choice as a moral choice for folks who have risked their bodies for at least three years just to get to this one opportunity. More importantly, this is the bill of goods they were sold when they were recruited. The whole endeavor has been building to this.

The fact that we expect them to do something different says more about us, as fans, than it does about their character as players.

There is often an ugliness at the heart of fandom—even the fandom that thinks they are honestly just arguing that keeping your commitments is a moral good. And the ugliness is this—we expect sports to tell us a particular story about the world that makes the world sensible and more bearable. And we need athletes for that story. But athletes never agreed to be the actors in a story about the world. They were promised a way to better themselves. To the extent that we resent them for not participating in the manner we need in the story about the world that we want to hear, we have failed as moral agents.

So, this Bowl Season, let’s do less of that.