Christian McCaffrey has decided not to play for Stanford in the Sun Bowl. He’ll begin preparations for the NFL draft instead. Another star running back, Leonard Fournette, will not suit up for LSU in the Citrus Bowl. Both are forgoing mostly meaningless exhibition games to focus on what’s best for their futures.
It’s an obvious and understandable choice. The inherent risk of another game is far greater than the potential reward. Both have proven enough during their collegiate careers to be early-round picks. Both teams, Stanford and LSU, underachieved enough to earn middle-tier bowls. The result of these games will not make or break either university’s year.
The dam appears to be breaking on the strength of a natural response to the cautionary tale of Jaylon Smith, the Notre Dame linebacker who tore his ACL and MCL in the Fiesta Bowl last January.
McCaffrey and Fournette will be the recipients of blowback. They’ll be painted as bad teammates and me-first guys. Some of this criticism will come without the knowledge of what their teammates actually think about the decisions.
And, yes, star players taking a pass on bowl games is not good for college football or their teams. It is not good for fans who want to see them play one last time. But, the truth of the matter is that this movement is overdue.
It could have started after Willis McGahee’s stomach-churning injury in the 2002 Fiesta Bowl. America watched as the then-Miami Hurricanes running back had his knee explode with the national championship on the line. He was arguably never the same.
Frankly, it’s surprising college football players didn’t look at such a cataclysmic injury and its ripple effect in numbers great enough to lead to selective participation in years immediately following. This is not to suggest McGahee shouldn’t have played in the national title game — much like the current trend of players sitting out hasn’t, and likely won’t, extend to those battling for a championship.
What players are doing now is taking a more responsible assessment of their future and weighing the cost-benefit ratio. In an ideal world, the best college players should participate if they are healthy enough to participate. That’s not the world we live in. The inequity between compensation all but forces an athlete’s hand. School pride and a prideful competitiveness aren’t monetizable resources on which to build a future. The financial security a first-round NFL contract offers stands in stark contrast.
What’s best for Stanford and what’s best for the Sun Bowl is not what’s best for McCaffrey, much like what’s best for Houston wasn’t what’s best for Tom Herman. If a coach can flee to greener pastures before a mid-tier bowl game, why can’t a player, who is providing cheap labor in comparison, make a similar decision?
At a certain point, the public flagellation of stars who opt to sit out comes off as selfish. As a fan, I want to see Fournette and McCaffrey on the field for these bowl games. As a human, I understand and support them making the best choice for their future.
There’s a fear that this practice will become more widespread and bowl games may soon feature second-string units battling it out. It’s important to understand that these two running backs, for now, are the exception and not the rule. The number of players who can afford to rest on their laurels is paltry in comparison to those who have more to prove and, thus, deem bowl games as a worthwhile endeavor.
It’s also important, too, that the primary driver for these postseason games is program, not star power. Sure, some will opt not to watch the Sun Bowl because McCaffrey isn’t playing and, sure, this could become a trend as the quality of play suffers.
But, in my estimation the primary reason for bowl games’ popularity is that they are televised football over the holidays. People watch because it’s on, not necessarily due to allegiance or interest in a particular team. The sport has expanded to forty bowl games because there’s a market for forty bowl games.
First-round talent skipping non-playoff bowl games is not ideal. It may pose a threat to ratings and further devalue the product. That risk, however, is being exaggerated.
One may not see this practice as a necessary evil, but it’s difficult to not be sympathetic and see how the players making these decisions deem it necessary. Their future is more important than our viewing experience.