On New Year’s Eve 2010, the people of El Paso, Texas, awoke to a half an inch of snow on the ground. That ground included the turf of the Sun Bowl, where Notre Dame and Miami would play the stadium’s eponymous annual postseason game that afternoon. The field needed to be cleared by kickoff, naturally. And let it never be said that Sun Bowl personnel aren’t a hard-working or extremely inventive lot: With an apparently limited supply of shovels and no plow at the ready, officials and volunteers began clearing powder from the playing surface with folding chairs and tables.
This is a long and moderately relevant way of saying it’s comically absurd to criticize Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, who probably has a very nice future as a millionaire football player ahead of him, for choosing not to risk any part of his body in the Sun Bowl this December. McCaffrey, a Heisman Trophy finalist last year, made the announcement Monday that he was opting out of the Cardinal’s game against North Carolina to prepare for the NFL draft. He wasn’t even a trendsetter. LSU’s Leonard Fournette, also likely to become very wealthy sometime next summer, elected Friday to forgo the final game of his career in the Citrus Bowl to focus on rehabbing an ankle injury, aiming to either enhance or maintain his pro prospects.
Bowl games and the college football postseason won’t crumble because a fraction of players—and, really, a fraction of star players at that—realize that even mid-level events are a bad bargain. Stanford and LSU will get their pre-bowl practices in and the vast majority of their rosters, featuring many present or future draft-eligible players, will gain experience or exposure that could benefit them down the line.
There is nothing a Sun Bowl can do for Christian McCaffrey. There is nothing a Citrus Bowl can do for Leonard Fournette. There is a lot that guaranteed first-round money can do for them, however, and there will be others like them every year that realize the risk far outweighs the reward in these exhibitions. What’s at stake on one forgettable day cannot match what’s at stake for the next decade.
Surely at some point both McCaffrey and Fournette saw or were made to see what happened with Notre Dame’s Jaylon Smith in last winter’s Fiesta Bowl. A gruesome knee injury turned Smith from a first-round lock into a second-round gamble; following McCaffrey’s decision on Monday, Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer noted that the gifted linebacker would’ve received at least $23.5 million guaranteed as a top five pick. He wound up with $4.5 million guaranteed instead as the 34th overall selection by the Dallas Cowboys.
Still, even the Smith example isn’t perfect. While it’s important to ask how much higher Smith could have climbed on draft boards regardless of bowl performance, he participated in a high-profile event against a high-profile opponent in Ohio State. Here’s guessing neither McCaffrey nor Fournette (at full health, anyway) would bail on a New Year’s Six contest and especially not the College Football Playoff. Which means they’d assume the same risk as Smith, the supposedly cautionary tale that inspired them to pass on their respective bowl trips this year.
No, in the end, it’s straightforward cost-benefit analysis. Ever more efficiently, college athletes are doing the algebra of what’s in it for them. It’s a personal calculation and it may indeed vary from position to position; wear and tear is not something to consider lightly for ball-toters like Fournette and McCaffrey. Some players may believe there’s enough glory to earn in a sideshow game, or they may be galvanized by one more run out of a tunnel in their college gear. (See: Garrett, Myles.) No one can blame them for that. But if a player decides that a gift bag from a mid-tier bowl game is not a worthy trade-off against the possibility of even a mildly severe injury that causes a future employer to second-guess his worth…well, there’s no reasonable counterargument to be made. How quickly would anyone take any action that’s essentially meaningless, if it meant that $20 million might vanish from their bank account?
The bowls continue on because the system will prop them up, for better or worse, not because a few stars prop them up. And pondering the relevance of these games without players like McCaffrey or Fournette assumes there’s much relevance to ponder in the first place. (For those who point out the games matter to the communities that host them: Sure. Of course. But let me know when a star gets hurt and a bowl association compensates him for millions of dollars in lost professional wages.)
If a college junior has come to the conclusion that, in life, he has to look out for himself first and foremost…well, one might argue that such clarity is a little overdue at that age anyway. Surely more players will see more downside than upside in some of these games down the line, and their peers likely won’t blame them for it. Of Fournette’s decision to sit out the Citrus Bowl, LSU guard Will Clapp told reporters, “He’s obviously a high-projected guy, and we want him to get what he deserves in the draft.” Of McCaffrey’s call, Stanford receiver Trenton Irwin tweeted this Monday:
No one better understands the choices these guys made than teammates who, all things being equal, would love to be in the same position with the same options.
A couple college students exercised their right to protect themselves and take the optimal path toward a tremendously secure financial future. The collateral damage of those actions ranges from negligible to non-existent. Perhaps it wasn’t easy for them to come to that decision. It certainly seems fair that they did.