Kirk Herbstreit made plenty of headlines over the weekend following a segment on ESPN in which he said “I think this era of player just doesn’t love football” when discussing why college football players opt out of “meaningless” bowl games. Along with Desmond Howard, the two were called old men yelling at clouds for their shaming of student-athletes who put their careers ahead of exhibition games, many of which are either owned or broadcast by ESPN.

So loud was the feedback that both Herbstreit and Howard offered clarifications soon after, attempting to reposition themselves as supporters of college football players and not mouthpieces of the machinery that attempts to keep them from having autonomy over their careers.

 

Herbstreit stopped by Barstool’s Pardon My Take podcast on Wednesday and provided further context about what he thinks of modern college football players. While his explanation might sound clarifying to him, it’s hard to listen to it and not come away thinking that Kirk might simply not realize how out of touch he is when it comes to the experiences of young people in the modern world.

“I’ve covered this sport from the front row…for 26 years,” said Herbstreit. “I’m really fortunate to be there. I have four sons that are 21 years and younger, two of which played Power 5 football. I’m not out of touch with kids. If anything, I’ve got a pretty good feel of what they’re distracted by… I get it. It’s different. It’s a different time. But I don’t have my head in the sand. Like, I’m not oblivious to the game of college football is changing.

“So it was really the whole conversation was about that. Des and I were talking, when we played, guys would never think about opting out. They, of course, would play. And how the team kinda overrode any kind of individual thought. This is a long time ago. But the whole thing is that some players maybe don’t love the game the way guys used to. It wasn’t all players don’t love the game. I think that’s what it became.

“And listen, when I say they don’t love the game… I think, going back to my own kids. They grew up literally in the internet age. And they grew up with phones. Think about how we grew up. If I grew up in this era, guess what, I would have been right there with them, probably. It’s just what they know.

“I grew up, we didn’t have a lot of stuff. So we went outside and played or you watched football. We watched basketball. You were entertained by watching games. And we were out in the yard playing. So we all had a love of the game and the idea that maybe one day I could be on TV playing. Guys today, like, my kids, they’re brainwashed football fans. If it’s not Ohio State, they’re kinda into it but kinda not. Which is fine. Their prerogative. They’re into their phones. They’re really into social media. And I get it. So, my kids included, don’t have the same passion that I had. And it doesn’t mean that they’re bad kids. It just means they’ve grown up differently.

“I think it really got twisted. It got really misunderstood. I don’t think kids that opt out are bad kids. I don’t think that they’re making a bad decision. They’re making their own decision that they and their family fit their own best interest. So be it. But I think if you would have listened to the entire eight minutes you would have heard a very different conversation than I think some of the headlines that were just grabbed maybe to help people push their own agenda or push their own narrative on whatever platform they have.”

You could listen to all of that and come away understanding what Kirk is saying, but when you dig into the content of it, you realize how the logic doesn’t hold water.

First of all, Kirk was born in 1969, which means he grew up in the 1970s and 80s. In discussing what kids did when he was young, he talks about it as if he grew up during the Great Depression. Yes, it’s true that kids back then didn’t have the internet or modern video games, but there were ample other entertainment attractions available to his generation beyond watching football or playing outside in the dirt.

And while he doesn’t come out and say this, you can feel the sentiment being that things were “better” when he was growing up, a very typical mindset for older people who don’t quite connect with the way the modern world works. Listening to the way Kirk described his childhood, I am not being facetious in saying it reminded me of how my grandparents, who grew up in the 1930s, would describe theirs.

Also, it’s a bit strange to hear someone who works for ESPN infer that young people don’t watch football anymore. Football is insanely popular across the board, including with teenagers. Herbstreit also knows as well as anyone just how popular football video games are and how much of an impact they have on modern young people.

Next, Kirk uses his children as proxies for “the kids today.” Yes, his kids indeed share the same world as the college football players he’s discussing. But it is very important to note that Kirk Herbstreit is wealthy and his family has lived a certain kind of lifestyle. To say that the children of a rich former athlete who appears on television all the time and has a certain influence in his community represent “the kids today” is just unrealistic and naive. It’s a form of privilege that I’m not sure Herbstreit is willing to acknowledge.

In the ways that Herbstreit explains why some of today’s college football players don’t “love” the game, the unsaid part is the notion that every single person who played college football before 2005 absolutely, positively loved the game with all their heart. Obviously, that’s not true. Yes, it was extremely rare and even unheard of for a player to opt-out of a bowl game back in the late 80s and early 90s, but it was a different world then.

There were way fewer bowl games, for starters. Players didn’t have nearly any autonomy in their college careers. And while there was a lot of money in the sport then, those numbers are dwarfed by the financial windfalls the sport generates now. The incentives and opportunities just weren’t there yet. And, like Kirk said, “the team kinda overrode any kind of individual thought,” which in most contexts would be an extremely dystopian thing to say.

At this point in the interview, Herbstreit transitions into discussing why players opt out of “meaningless” bowl games. As he explains his confusion with why they do it, you can see how close he comes to getting the point without actually getting it.

“My point was this. Why is a bowl game meaningless?” said Herbstreit. “In that segment, I described it as there’s two different lanes if you’re a college football player. One lane is, I’m here for three years, whoever can get me to the NFL faster, that’s my goal. And you know what, you’re entitled to that view. More power to you. I wish you all the best from the bottom of my heart. I hope you make generational wealth. But that’s one lane. If you’re in that lane, why would you not only not play in a bowl game, why would you play in the entire season?

“See I think that’s where we’re going. We’re focused on ‘they skip a meaningless bowl game,’ but I’m saying if that’s your view then you’re entitled, but why stop there? If it’s all about the endgame, which is getting to the NFL…if the goal is to get there, skip your entire third year, go to Phoenix, go train, stay healthy. That was my point in that segment. Like, I don’t get skipping a bowl game. If it’s about saving myself for a meaningless bowl game, skip yourself from the whole season. That’s one lane.”

Herbstreit is SO CLOSE to getting it here. All he’d have to do is tweak his point of view just enough to see that many college football players don’t play college football because that is the goal, they play college football because that is the only path forward if you want to make football your career.

In some cases, a college football scholarship is the only path forward if you want to attend a university. College football is a means to an end in many different ways.

Not to mention, the NFL mandates that you must be out of high school for at least three years before you are eligible to play in their league and it would be impossible for a high school player to just train on their own for that time and remain in the condition needed to compete at that level. So you play college football because that is the only way to go about it, at least for now.

But when it becomes clear that you have a shot at the NFL, it’s understandable that people in that position would then want to limit their chances of injury wherever possible. And if that means skipping the Fenway Bowl between two 6-6 teams, so be it.

Herbstreit then goes on to make his pitch for why those players should consider spending as much time as possible in college instead of thinking about the NFL.

“You guys focus on the guys who become Ja’Marr Chase,” said Herbstreit. “What you don’t see are the guys I see, who end up having those same dreams as Ja’Marr Chase but they didn’t make it. They opted out or whatever. They declared early. They never make the NFL. So my point is this. Stay in the other lane, potentially. Have those same dreams. Have those same goals. But at the same time, man, you have no idea what opportunity you have if you go to Madison or Columbus or Ann Arbor or Austin, Texas. Go chase that NFL dream but in the meantime, get your degree, meet people, have relationships, be courteous, be humble, treat people well.

“And when you go play in the NFL for five years or seven years and don’t make generational wealth, or let’s say you don’t make it to the NFL…you have this to fall back on. Relationships. And those schools will take care of you forever with the alumni and different relationships if you play the system. You can let the system play you or you can play the system.

“I have an appreciation for what these players are facing. Becuase I had those same dreams. I would have killed to go to the NFL. Guess what? Wasn’t in the cards for me. I never got to a camp in the NFL. What am I gonna do? Am I just gonna go home? I wasn’t a great student, I didn’t take school as seriously as I should have. But I got a business degree. I didn’t know what I was gonna do. I stumbled into broadcasting. Accidentally got into it, making $12,000 a year. Had no idea. Wasn’t like ‘I’m gonna go to GameDay, I’m gonna go ESPN.’ No concept of what I wanted to do. I’ll just bust my ass, work as hard as I can, an opportunity opened up, and I eventually got to ESPN.

And maybe it’s a one-in-a-million story but my point is the relationships that I took advantage of opened some doors for me to get that opportunity and that’s why it breaks my heart when players put all their eggs into one basket. NFL or bust. And then when they don’t make it, and 98% of these guys aren’t making it, so that’s what breaks my heart, man. We focus on Ja’Marr Chase and Micah Parsons and we don’t focus on the 98% of guys that I care about and I want them to have something to fall back on if they don’t make it.”

Herbstreit’s story about how he worked his way up, saw his dreams get dashed, and then worked hard to create new opportunities for himself is great and worth applauding and appreciating. That said, there’s a section of Mary Schmich’s famous “Wear Sunscreen” essay that is worth re-reading at this moment.

“Be careful whose advice you buy, but be patient with those who supply it. Advice is a form of nostalgia: dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts, and recycling it for more than it’s worth.”

Herbstreit’s version of how he rose up the ranks is rosy and clean, but the truth is probably much less so. And while it’s a nice story, it’s his story, specific to who he is and how that impacted the way he was able to work within the system. Herbstreit even says, “you can let the system play you or you can play the system.” But, and it doesn’t seem like Herbstreit is ready to admit this, the system is much easier for someone who looks like him to navigate than a lot of other people in college football. The system is made for people like Kirk Herbstreit, which is why “play the system” makes a lot of sense to him.

And for the record, it feels a bit disingenuous of Kirk to say that he alone is thinking of the many college football players who don’t make it to the NFL. College football fans and observers are well aware of the pitfalls and risks that come with going that route. We’re all aware of how it works and very few people are naive to the truth that there are only a handful of NFL spots available. It’s presumptuous to think that regular college football fans don’t think or care about those things.

It’s also worth noting that Herbstreit presents a very black and white, right and wrong version of how a student-athlete can move through college football. His two-lane system might have been correct in 1990 when he was playing, but the sport has changed drastically now, giving college football players ample opportunities to not only get a degree but also go pro early.

Plenty of players can get their degree in three years now. Graduate transfers come away from their college career with a graduate degree AND the chance to play in the NFL. And there are plenty more who leave college early to go pro and then return at some point to finish their education later.

Thinking about it as a binary choice is myopic and, frankly, an attempt to make your argument sound better than it is.

Towards the end of the conversation, Herbstreit launches into a surprising discussion about how college football players should be treated as employees. However, before he gets there, he provides a thesis statement that so thoroughly wraps up his out-of-touch thinking on the way the modern world works that it would be impossible to sum it up better.

“Compare yourselves right now in your career to where you were when you first started,” said Herbstreit. “You’re a little bit more seasoned. You know a little bit more. You’ve earned the right to be in the position you’re in. Imagine where you’ll be in ten years. Or where you’ll be in 20 years. Imagine there’s a young guy who’s coming up who wants to podcast with you guys and he’s just starting out and he wanted to have the same opportunities that you guys have.

“I mean, it just doesn’t work that way.”

And yet it does. The people he’s talking to are literally proof of that. He’s explaining that everyone has to wait their turn to two guys who work for Barstool, a company that circumvented the entire traditional media model to make new roads for themselves. PFT and Big Cat are the “young guy who’s coming up” he’s talking about and they blew past just about every traditional sports media podcaster who did things “the right way” or whatever because they didn’t subscribe to Herbstreit’s notion that you have to pay your dues and do what you’re told.

“I kind of want to recalibrate the whole system,” Herbstreit continues. “I say we make the players employees. I say we’re down a path now we form a union. I mean that’s where we’re going with this thing.”

“If you do that players got to understand when they go get a massage that’s for free now, that’s going to cost them. When they go to the cryo machine, that’s going to cost them. It’s a very different relationship. But that’s where I think that’s where we’re headed at this point because players need to be treated that way. They need to benefit more than they are not just with name image and likeness.”

It’s very telling that even when he’s talking about giving the players more autonomy and the financial respect they deserve, Herbstreit can’t help but couch it in the negatives. In his mind, they’re going to have to pay for things that were free (which almost certainly isn’t true). That’s not how being an employee works, certainly not in this kind of environment. It’s just scaremongering.

“These are all things that five years ago, I would have never thought we would have gotten to, but we have to accept where we are.”

That last sentiment is fair enough. And hey, Herbstreit seems sincere. He really does sound like he believes his idea for what’s best for college football players is truly the best way forward. But Herbstreit’s idealized version of the sport, the notion that all coaches have the best intentions, and that spending as much time in college as possible is the correct decision just isn’t reality.

Or at least, he seems stuck in the ideas of his youth and his playing days and isn’t really interested in seeing the world through the eyes of a 20-year-old in 2022. He still sees the internet and smartphones as boogeymen and holds onto a very obvious “things were better in my day” mindset that never works.

Herbstreit spends a lot of time in the interview scolding people for not listening to his entire segment last week and for misconstruing or misinterpreting what he said. He brings it up in just about every segment to defend himself. But he doesn’t quite see how that’s the problem right there. He doesn’t want to listen to the feedback or accept that his worldview might not match the way things work now. He’s too caught up in making sure you know that he knows what’s best because of his personal experiences, and you’d get that if you just listened better.

It’s a trap a lot of us fall into as we get older. Nostalgia is a hell of a drug. But when you’re a leading voice for something the way Kirk Herbstreit is for college football, you’re going to keep finding yourself right back here getting frustrated that people disagree with you and modern players take different paths than you did, rather than stopping to think, y’know, maybe there’s more to all of this than just my worldview.

[Pardon the Interruption, via Mediaite]

About Sean Keeley

Sean Keeley is the creator of the Syracuse blog Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician and author of 'How To Grow An Orange: The Right Way to Brainwash Your Child Into Rooting for Syracuse.' He has also written non-Syracuse-related things for SB Nation, Curbed, and many other outlets. He currently lives in Seattle. Send tips/comments/complaints to sean@thecomeback.com.