Commentary

Stop bowl bids for mediocrity

College players don't deserve participation medals for six-win seasons

Updated: December 4, 2011, 2:13 PM ET
By LZ Granderson | ESPN.com

I knew my son had my genes the day I saw him toss a participation medal in the trash shortly after his team lost in the quarterfinals of a regional soccer tournament.

participation medal
Juan Mabromata/AFP/Getty ImagesMedals are cheap. But shouldn't hardware and postseason play, especially at the college level, reward excellence?

"I don't want a medal for showing up," he told his coach, who then looked at me.

I was smiling.

I wanted to yell, "Yeah, that's how we roll," but I didn't need to be that dad because I already had that son, that athlete who understood trophies and medals are earned -- not given.

I don't know who started this whole participation-medal thing, but I wonder whether they also were involved in the bowl-game-expansion deliberations. Between the 1970-71 and 2010-11 college football seasons, the number of bowl games increased from 11 to 35. Of course, this is largely driven by fan demand and money. But I ask you: Were there really 70 elite football teams that have earned a right to be called a champion of something, or did we see a lot of mediocrity being invited to fill TV schedules and corporate America's date cards?

UCLA lost 50-0 to AP No. 10 USC last week, is 6-6 and is a 32-point underdog heading into Friday's matchup against No. 8 Oregon. But regardless of the Bruins' outcome against the Ducks, UCLA is heading to a bowl game. That's a byproduct of the Trojans' being bowl ineligible and the Bruins' brand recognition. It's not a byproduct of great football. If that were the case, I doubt they would be taking applications for a new head coach.

Face it: Bowl games are the new participation medal. Except instead of a piece of gold-painted plastic, middle-of-the-road teams are given hundreds of thousands of dollars, gift bags and postseason practice time. I'm sure the Bruins worked as hard as they could for that .500 record, but hard work doesn't mean they or any other team with fewer than nine wins should get a bowl game. That's like putting community theater on Broadway because the locals gave them a standing O. Sometimes you're just not good enough, and that's part of the college experience too.

The NCAA has allowed members' greedy eyes to dilute football to the point where someone can say his alma mater won the "Fancy Housewares Bowl." and you would have to Google it to see whether such a game even exists. I know the wussification of our culture has claimed many victims, but who would've thought the game of titans would erode to this degree? Whatever happened to programs being, I don't know, proud?

Kevin Prince
AP Photo/Jae C. HongKevin Prince and UCLA didn't have the greatest season. But they could play on anyway.

After two dismal seasons with no postseason play, Wolverine Nation was ecstatic to reach seven wins last year. And after being destroyed 52-14 by Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl to finish the year 7-6, the Michigan faithful were reminded that being bowl-eligible and being bowl-worthy are not synonymous. This year will be their rival's turn to showcase mediocrity for the masses, as the 6-6 Ohio State Buckeyes await an invitation.

But I remember a time when eight wins was not enough to be called a winner of anything, except maybe some traditional artifact from an individual game between rivals, such as the "Little Brown Jug" Michigan and Minnesota fight over each year. Now six wins in most conferences can get a ticket punched. Following not paying players and not having a playoff, this proliferation of faux champions is the third-heaviest albatross around college football's postseason neck. Besides, millennials already are saddled with a self-entitlement label. We don't need to see them screaming "We're No. 1" to the cameras the third week of December when we all know No. 1 is decided the second week in January.

Listen, I like the added drama of wild-card pursuits in MLB and the NFL. I like that a top tennis player coming back from injury still can get an invite for a Grand Slam. And I don't mind having teams outside of the Top 25 playing in bowl games. But when a program can finish the regular season below .500 and still be presented with an opportunity to raise a trophy and be called a champion of something, clearly some aspects of the system has gone awry.

Pretty soon coaches will be hiring Eddie Murphy look-alikes to put on fat suits, dress in drag and clap while yelling "Hercules, Hercules" after team meetings.

Might as well.

If participation medals brought to you by (insert sponsor name here) are OK, why not pandering cheerleaders? On second thought, if a team loses a game by 50, chances are it already has those.

LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at lzgranderson@yahoo.com.

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LZ Granderson | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine