Earlier this week Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey and Baylor running back Shock Linwood announced they would skip their respective bowl games to focus on preparing for the 2017 NFL Draft. By doing so they join LSU running back Leonard Fournette as high-profile draft prospects prepared to forgo one last chance to suit up with their collegiate teammates in exchange for significantly reduced risk of injury leading up to the event, which occurs from April 27-29 in Philadelphia, PA.
Their decisions have sparked mixed reactions in the sports industry. Former Ohio State University standout – and current Dallas Cowboys electric rookie running back – Ezekiel Elliot tweeted he “…would do anything” to suit up one more time with his teammates. Others, including noted NCAA critic and ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, said they support the athletes’ decision to skip the bowl games to concentrate on the future.
Every person is certainly entitled to his or her own opinion, but who are we to criticize the personal health and financial decisions made by those who sacrifice themselves for our entertainment, and the benefit of the NCAA? Not to mention, all of these players have their names atop respective school and conference record books. Their resumes are already set!
All of these players missed at least one game earlier in the season. Anyone who’s played sports understands the increased susceptibility to injury while competing with a preexisting injury. Fournette and McCaffrey are projected as first-round picks by NFL draft experts, while Linwood is a day two or three candidate. If any of them were to suffer an injury or a setback in the bowl game, they would potentially lose tens of millions of dollars. Not convinced? Look at former Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith. He was projected to be a top-ten pick in the 2016 NFL Draft before suffering a gruesome knee injury in a meaningful bowl game. Smith was eventually selected by the Dallas Cowboys early in the second round, but lost nearly $18 million over four years.
NCAA athletes are not paid for their hard work. Most do not have money to fall back on, especially if they forgo their senior seasons for a shot as a professional football player. Yet, the NCAA makes hundreds of millions of dollars off their blood and sweat each year. What’s the difference between a student that drops out and starts a major tech company, and an athlete that wants to protect his or her future? Nothing. Don’t forget: we also tend to neglect the lack of commitment from college coaches who accept new jobs before finishing out the season (see: Tom Herman). Coaches receive far less criticism than athletes.
The only valid argument I’ve heard against skipping bowl games is such that the decision might give the indication that a player is willing to “quit” on his team. For example, after a couple of years in the NFL these players will be playing in the so-called “contract year,” after which the player can hit free agency in search of the best offer. Does that mean if the team is out of playoff contention in Week 13 the running back will avoid contact on the field, maybe scuttle out of bounds rather than finish the run with authority, or forgo the final quarter of the season altogether? It’s possible, sure. But, I suspect the leadership in an NFL locker room capable of convincing players otherwise. It seems that the decision to skip the bowl games won’t hurt these backs’ on-field resumes, but their answers to specific questions in the NFL Draft interviews could play a significant role in what round they’re selected.
Don’t be mad at players for skipping meaningless, non-New Year’s Day bowl games while you revel in the glory of your high school contests. You can’t blame anyone for taking the money in that situation. I understand it decreases the attractiveness and hinders the viewership of a game, but that’s not for us to decide. Our only decision is to watch, or not. The decisions of these backs should only highlight the fact that there are too many bowl games, period. But that’s another conversation.
If you feel like tuning in, Baylor will take on Boise State in the Motel 6 Cactus Bowl on December 27th, Stanford plays University of North Carolina on December 29th in the Hyundai Sun Bowl, and LSU draws Louisville in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Eve. But while you’re watching lackluster action, ask yourself “what benefit could any of these running backs reap by playing in a meaningless bowl game?”