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BILL DWYRE

USC's Matt Barkley does it right as college football gets it wrong

Matt Barkley acted sensibly in skipping Sun Bowl to avoid possible injury that could hurt his NFL chances. Yes, the decision was about money, but so is the sport.

Bill Dwyre

8:12 PM EST, December 30, 2012

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The mixed messages about college football keep coming.

The most recent was sent via USC's Matt Barkley, who should be, and is, above reproach in matters involving deportment and decision making as a major-college student-athlete. When it was time for him to take the money and run last year, he stayed. In all instances that come to mind during a career in which he kept the torch burning for Trojans fans and a football program bulldozed by the NCAA, he acted with maturity and sensibility.

He is doing so once again.

But his decision to not test a shoulder sprained more than six weeks ago is revealing. Yes, the doctors say it isn't worth the risk to his pro career, but you sense that he took that advice quickly and easily.

Had it been the BCS title game, rather than the Sun Bowl in El Paso against a 6-7 Georgia Tech team, chances are the decision would have been different. Again, no arguments.

Barkley is going to the pros. That's the ever-present priority. The colleges preach, and want us to believe, that team and togetherness are the ultimate lessons. But the reality is a different marriage. It is all for one and one for all, until death — or the Sun Bowl — do us part.

Again, no criticism of Barkley or USC here. The criticism is of a nationwide academic cartel that hides in fancy board rooms behind ivy-covered walls and constantly promotes the pretense of molding minds first and strong bodies as an afterthought. In fact, the only thing amateur about much of college football is the attempt to sell it as such to the public. The pros may be brutal and violent and go way overboard in making winning and losing seem like life and death. But at least it is clear why.

Money.

The NFL shouts it, covets it, flaunts it. The colleges covet it, but behind closed doors and, even then, whisper it as if it's a dirty word.

Barkley's decision to sit out the Sun Bowl clearly said enough of this charade was enough. His very return for his senior season, unexpected and selfless, had pumped millions into college football coffers, both those of his own school and all the other ones he played against. Now, it was his turn.

That he was even put in a position of having to make the call speaks volumes.

Were he to do the selfless thing, one more time for the sake of team and USC fans, he would be doing so for a bowl game that, although meaningful for the Chamber of Commerce of El Paso, has near zero significance other than being more TV sports programming.

That generates (let's whisper now) money.

The Sun Bowl is on CBS. The bulk of these bowl games, more than 30 of them, are on ESPN. These have names such as the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, and are not so much actual competition as they are airtime fillers, as well as further attempts to feed the beast and enrich the already bloated collective ego of ESPN.

The colleges lap-dog along, willingly selling their souls for a couple of hours in front of the cameras and a paycheck with lots of zeros, while rationalizing the advantage of having a couple of more weeks of practice. To be clear, USC Coach Lane Kiffin is not among those who preach that party line.

What about the advantage, after 12 or even 13 games already played, of a couple of more weeks in school to heal the bodies and minds? What about a business model that not only provides the ultimate feeder system of talent at no cost to the NFL, but allows, again at no cost, a final pre-draft preview called bowl games?

One major-college athletic director is fond of saying, albeit privately, "It isn't a real bowl game if it isn't in January."

Only five postseason games currently matter — the Rose, Orange, Sugar and Fiesta bowls and the BCS title game. The best of the best in college football deserve some postseason challenge and reward. The rest is window dressing, TV programming and a bow to the current mentality that, upon entering school, you give every kid a trophy so they all feel loved.

With his actions, Barkley is finally saying what the world of college football has ultimately prepared him to do, and what it practices at every turn, yet dares only to whisper.

Show me the money.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com