Few sports have captivated audiences during the offseason like professional football. The centerpiece of the NFL offseason is the draft, where college players can enter to be selected by NFL clubs for the upcoming season. Unlike other sports, where the offseason is a time of low ratings, the 2018 NFL draft had ratings higher than the Stanley Cup Finals. Ratings alone signal the draft itself has become primetime event, representing the moment NFL clubs can change their direction and transcend the “rebuilding” moniker. A draft pick can become the face of an organization, defining it for generations to come or it can simply serve as a fresh start for teams that seem to habitually circle the wagon.
At the heart of the NFL draft is the players that are selected. The player evaluation process grew along with the draft’s popularity and profitability, culminating in televised workouts at the NFL combine and extensive background checks. The beginning to this grueling process is the Senior Bowl which is always played in late January. Sponsored by Reese’s, the Senior Bowl bills itself as the “nation’s most unique football game.” Two NFL coaching staffs, from the teams with the lowest winning percentage from that season, organize and the coach the game. It is unapologetically a senior showcase for professional organizations and select media members.
The Senior Bowl has a symbiotic relationship with the participating players, who are selected based on their elite collegiate performance. With the increased exposure to professional scouts and even prominent members of the media these players can rise in the draft and earn millions in the process, while NFL personnel can determine who fits with their respective schemes. But aside from being named elite, the Senior Bowl poses serious health risks to participating players. Evaluations take place during full contact drills leading up to the game. With the added pressure of auditioning for NFL, these full contact drills, and the game itself, players open themselves up to injury.
Players that are injured during the Senior Bowl risk being unavailable for the NFL Combine and individual workouts with NFL clubs. This significant risk can end up costing a player an opportunity to even play professionally. Availability is among the most important factors leading into the draft, which is why full a contact showcase is dangerous to NFL hopefuls. In other words, a player doesn’t receive any participation points for playing in the Senior Bowl.
Although it may prove difficult to get players, who are seniors in college, to truly weigh the risk versus the reward, the NCAA has the ability to step in and help. There are close ties between college football programs and the senior bowl, as players wear helmets with their college logos. Additionally, college athletic scholarships continue until the end of the academic year and schools have until July 7 to decide to renew any particular scholarship or not. In turn, a scholarship agreement is binding on both the school and individual player until the end of the school year for a senior. Provisions mandating safety and oversight as a condition of participation in the Senior Bowl or other showcase events can be included. Reducing physical contact during drills, similar to the NFL, can go a long way in preventing injuries.
Forcing elite football players to consider safety and weigh their options when faced with the unique challenge of participating in the Senior Bowl is a universal good. These players are still student-athletes at this point in their careers and ensuring their safety will help them make better career-related decisions in the coming months. These players are heading towards some of the biggest interviews of their lives with NFL clubs at the combine and other events–doing so with an injury from a meaningless football game can only hurt their potential value. Football is a violent game but practice and evaluating talent doesn’t have to be.