Different choices, but the same unselfish goal for players like Caleb Williams and Shedeur Sanders

OPINION: Whether choosing to continue to play in college — like Sanders — or skipping bowl games to presumably prepare for the pros — like Williams — this is the best time ever for top college athletes. Traditionalists will just have to deal with it.

College Football: Colorado quarterback Shedeur Sanders (2) in action, looks on vs Arizona at Folsom Field. Boulder, CO. (Photo by Jamie Schwaberow / Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

Selfishness is a relative concept. It’s a blight on society when maxed out, but perfectly understandable when utilized sparingly. The degrees between those extremes foster endless debates among friends, relatives and colleagues.

Take, for instance, USC quarterback Caleb Williams and Colorado quarterback Shedeur Sanders. 

Both have benefitted from recent NCAA rule changes on transferring schools and making money. Both are highly rated prospects at the NFL’s most valued position. Both have the option of returning to campus or entering the NFL draft in April. 

The similarities seem to diverge on that last point. Sanders is set to remain in college another season under his dad, Coach Prime, while Williams has decided to skip USC’s bowl game, presumably to prepare for the pros.

Old heads who romanticize the era of limited choices and misplaced loyalties will salute Sanders for sticking with his team while painting players like Williams as selfish quitters whose hearts are in the wrong place.

But critics’ heads are up their you-know-what, longing for the days when sitting out bowl games was taboo. Never mind the time-honored tradition of coaches bolting for new gigs before their team plays a bowl game. When players do likewise, part of a growing trend that’s now common, some folks see a problem.

“You’ve got an obligation to the place that helped build and develop you and finish it out in the bowl,” the late Mississippi State coach Mike Leach said two Decembers ago. “You owe it to your team, you owe it to your fans, you owe it to your coaches, and it’s the most bizarre thing in the world to me.” 

As he spoke, coaches Lincoln Riley, Brian Kelly and Marioa Cristobal packed up and left their respective teams — Oklahoma, Notre Dame and Oregon — prior to their bowl games, setting up shop at USC, LSU and Miami.

Last season, Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson and Texas halfback Bijan Robinson were among the soon-to-be first-rounders who said, “Nah, we good,” instead of playing one more game as a student. ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit complained that “this era of player just doesn’t love football.”

With all respect to the legendary Tina Turner, love’s got nothing to do with it. 

Young men like Williams are making business decisions that shouldn’t be taken personally or viewed as self-centered. It’s a simple risk-reward situation: the potential loss of millions if you’re injured in the bowl, versus the charm of a final go-around with the fellas. 

Sanders’ choice is about family ties more than dollars and sense, especially considering the beating he suffered behind Colorado’s porous offensive line. But coming back isn’t a sign of altruism. He’s essentially a professional already, earning an estimated $4 million for his name, image and likeness. 

Either way, this is the best time ever for top college athletes like Williams and Sanders. 

Coaches who grumbled about NIL deals are now asking fans to send money. “I’d love to see 5,000 people donate $1,000 to our NIL,” North Carolina State coach Dave Doren said. Throw in the transfer portal and players have more leverage, the ability to seek better fits and bigger bags at other schools.

Williams and Sanders were aided in their rise among NIL earners when they transferred from Oklahoma and Jackson State, respectively. True, it makes life difficult for coaches who have no idea how many roster spots need to be filled each offseason. But that’s their problem, with a partial solution in the very same portal they gripe about.

But for athletes? They’re enjoying a version of free agency that makes the pros jealous. 

Unlike professional contracts, athletic scholarships are non-binding. Players are free to leave their original school and play immediately at another school (and sometimes another) before their college career ends. And just like in the NFL, passers are the most coveted and best-compensated players. “A good quarterback in the portal costs, you know, a million to $1.5 million to $2 million right now,” Nebraska coach Matt Rhule said.   

The grass isn’t always greener elsewhere, but maybe you just want a different place to graze. Nothing wrong with a change of scenery and a chance to create more memories on a new campus. You can argue that it creates a more well-rounded college experience, like Williams getting a taste of Hollywood and Sanders getting to breathe mountain air.

Williams has until Jan. 15 to declare for the 2024 NFL Draft, where he’s the presumptive No. 1 overall pick. Sanders could be the top pick in the following draft and might skip a bowl game, too, if Colorado is eligible. Can’t be mad at them.

Transferring schools and sitting out bowls might be considered selfish by the old-timers. But given the circumstances, many would do likewise and call it something else: 

Upward mobility.

Deron Snyder, from Brooklyn, is an award-winning columnist who lives near D.C. and pledged Alpha at HU-You Know! He’s reaching high, lying low, moving on, pushing off, keeping up, and throwing down. Got it? Get more at blackdoorventures.com/deron.

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