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Grip on Sports: A virus is spreading through college sports and all the money in the world won’t find a cure

Southern California forward Chimezie Metu (4) is ejected after a flagrant foul during the first half of the team's NCAA college basketball game against Washington State, Sunday, Dec. 31, 2017, in Los Angeles. (Kyusung Gong / AP)
Southern California forward Chimezie Metu (4) is ejected after a flagrant foul during the first half of the team's NCAA college basketball game against Washington State, Sunday, Dec. 31, 2017, in Los Angeles. (Kyusung Gong / AP)

A GRIP ON SPORTS • First it was lower tier football bowl games. Now it is the lower tier postseason basketball tournaments. Players are sitting because they don’t want to hurt their professional chances. When will it end? Read on.

••••••••••

• Over the past couple years, a handful of football players, such as Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, have decided to skip the lower-profile bowl games. Football, being such an intense, physical, contact sport, most, if not all, professed a desire to avoid injury before their inevitable ascension to the NFL.

Because, it is, about me. Like everything else in society.

It’s understandable, sure, with the pot of gold waiting at the end of the criticism storm, but it is self-centered. And now it is spreading.

USC forward Chimezie Metu, a pretty good bet to play in the NBA, didn’t participate in either of the Trojans’ NIT games, the last of which was last night, a 79-75 loss to Western Kentucky.

He told his teammates, according to the Los Angeles Times, he wanted to avoid injury as he prepared for the NBA draft.

The same teammates who helped him reach the level of being drafted in the first place. The same teammates who spent the last six to eight months sweating with him, all in the vain hope they could band together to reach their goals.

The same teammates Metu abandoned. Or let down, if that’s a better way of saying it.

Look, it’s possible to make a persuasive argument for the top end football players missing bowl games. Balancing a future of financial independence versus a last game with your buddies isn’t easy, but it’s made simpler by the mathematics of football injuries. The game is brutal.

And the NFL will draft you, will give you your first big contract, without ever asking you to suit up and hit again. Run drills, sure. But not hit or be hit. So there is some sense in sitting out.

Basketball is different.

Between now and the time Metu signs a multi-million dollar contract, he will play the game often. Maybe not with referees, announcers, fans in the stands or coaches, but he’ll play. It might be three-on-three. It might be one-on-one. It might be five-on-five.

But it will be the game. It will be competition. There will be contact. There will be risk of injury.

NBA teams will not just put him through drills – as is the case in football. They will want to see him compete. You know, what he didn’t do the last two USC games.

His teammates will probably saw all the right things publicly. How they support their teammate in his quest, how it’s a personal decision and all that. But I’m guessing that’s not their real feelings.

It’s hard to see how it could be. Senior guard Jordan McLaughlin was also playing his last game for the Trojans. He also has NBA aspirations. He throws himself around with abandon. And he played.

When McCaffrey opted out of Stanford’s bowl game, he was lauded by some as a trendsetter who had his priorities straight. That’s somewhat right. He seems to have been a trendsetter. After all, the idea is spreading.

It has become part of basketball. And, at some point, a college football player will realize, seven or eight games into his last season, he’s near the top of Mel Kiper’s board. He'll realize he’s shown the NFL’s scouts enough. So he'll ask a simple question: why play more? Why risk a blown knee when a millions of dollars are at stake? Why risk what I've earned for others?

It’s defensible. It’s even understandable. But it stinks.

Especially for the other 70 or so guys on the team who won’t be playing at the next level, who are doing what they are doing for fun or for the camaraderie or for pride.

I’m sure there are four or five guys on that USC basketball team who spent hour after hour at practice for the past two, three, four years without any hope of playing the game professionally. They wanted to play in the NCAA tournament, to win a Pac-12 title, to reach team goals. They may have even sacrificed individual glory for team success over and over during their career.

They had to readjust after last week, but another goal presented itself. And they had to try to reach it without one guy who decided his personal goals were more important than team ones.

I wonder what they will say next week if he asks to join their pickup game?

•••

Gonzaga: Florida State is a confident team with a player who knows the Gonzaga program well, having watched it from just a few miles away. Jim Meehan has stories covering both. … After the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, the favorites have changed a bit. Theo Lawson has a story on Gonzaga’s odds. … Larry Weir called me yesterday and we talked about GU for his Press Box pod. … The Zags’ Drew Bies was the WCC pitcher of the week. … Around the WCC, the conference has hired its commissioner, Gloria Nevarez. She’s a former Pac-12 administrator, but rose above that career handicap by joining the NCAA offices. … Saint Mary’s took down another Pac-12 school at home in the NIT, this time edging Washington. … A Deseret News columnist blasts BYU’s time in the WCC and says the Cougars need to move on. … USF won its CTI game against visiting Utah Valley.

WSU: Curtis Allen came to Washington State as an assistant basketball coach so long ago I was still covering the team. Now he’s leaving for the beach. He’s joining his college coach, Lorenzo Romar, and the guy who brought him to Pullman, Ken Bone, at Pepperdine. Theo has the story. … The NIT isn’t the Pac-12 Invitational anymore. USC dropped out with the Western Kentucky loss we wrote about above. … Washington also lost, though the Huskies rallied late against Saint Mary’s, they didn’t get over the hump. All wasn’t lost yesterday though. … Stanford went to Stillwater, Oklahoma, and fell behind quickly. The Cardinal rallied but they still lst to Oklahoma State. … Utah started fast, finished strong and routed visiting LSU. Now the Utes will travel to Moraga with a trip to New York on the line. … Arizona began spring football practice yesterday, its first under Kevin Sumlin. … Washington’s freshman quarterbacks, including Coeur d’Alene’s Colson Yankoff, will debut at spring practice.

Preps: The Idaho and Washington Gatorade girls basketball players of the year are from this area. Dave Nichols has the story of Melody Kempton’s and Lexie Hull’s honors.

Olympic sports: Ever wanted to participate in curling? There is always that opportunity. Chad Sokol has a story on some folks who took their opportunity recently.

Mariners: The stars of the pitching staff did their work on the back fields yesterday. That included Felix Hernandez. … The M’s got knocked around a bit in the main game though Dee Gordon threw out another runner. … As per usual, there were roster moves.

Seahawks: The Hawks traded for a cornerback with long arms. … They also hosted a defensive lineman. … Justin Britt is in the fold.

Sounders: Fans grow accustom to success. And demand more. That’s the way it is with pro sports.

•••       

• It’s easy to make arguments on both sides of the sit-or-play issue. Football is one thing. Basketball? That seems harder to defend. Until later …

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