Christian McCaffrey’s decision to opt out of the Sun Bowl so that he can prepare for the NFL draft raises several important questions: Is this really in McCaffrey’s own interest? What steps can the NCAA take to compel high profile football players to play in bowl games? And what does such a calculated decision say about the meaning of sports?
Did McCaffrey choose wisely?
The simple answer is, yes, because he has minimized the chance of suffering a serious or even career-ending injury. Jaylon Smith has expressed no regrets about the knee injury he sustained while playing for Notre Dame against Ohio State in last season’s Fiesta Bowl. You can bet, however, that other players and agents are well aware that he dropped in the draft and could end up losing tens of millions.
The problem is that McCaffrey’s stock might have already dropped precisely because he chose not to play. Some GMs, personnel directors and coaches are probably wondering whether he will play through injuries in regular season, or even playoff games. And whether he will retire early once he has met his financial goals.
Finally, if his pro career fizzles, you have to wonder how welcome he will be back in Palo Alto. Many a college star who fails to make the professional grade can carve out a good living back at his alma mater, but will Stanford’s athletic department and alumni forgive him?
College football has a larger problem
The NCAA should be very concerned that McCaffrey chose to do this. His dad and mom were stars at Stanford and he was no doubt raised bleeding Cardinal red. He is not a financial hardship case and a five-million dollar insurance policy had already been taken out in his name. Playing would not risk the financial future of his family. And, unlike Leonard Fournette, the LSU tailback who also opted to skip a forthcoming bowl game, he was not still recovering from a long-term injury
McCaffrey’s decision appears to be quite calculated. The chances of a serious injury are too high to risk playing in a minor bowl game against a second or third-tier team with four losses.
Nick Saban has pinned the blame for Fournette and McCaffrey’s decision on the fact there is now a playoff season. The playoffs grab all the attention, he argues, and thus diminish the value of bowl games. There might be a little truth in this, but do you really think the Sun Bowl would be more eagerly anticipated if there was no playoff?
The bigger problem, by far, is that there are too many bowl games and very few of them are even remotely appealing. I am sure Florida State and Michigan would prefer to be facing off in a playoff game, but I doubt you will see Dalvin Cook or any other players skip out because this bowl game still matters.
At the end of the day, to paraphrase Billie Jean King, we want to see two teams who are really good at what they do playing their behinds off. FSU-Michigan meets those criteria, but Stanford-North Carolina does not. The NCAA would be wise to drastically reduce the number of bowl games.
The largest problem
Sports might not be a matter of life and death, but we devote ourselves to it precisely because it fosters that illusion.
Several years ago I met a former Stanford tight end named Bob Moore and asked him about their 1971 Rose Bowl victory against undefeated Ohio State. Moore went on to a more than decent pro career with the Raiders and later (much to his chagrin) the Tampa Bay Bucs (let’s just say he is not a big John McKay fan), But he told me that the win over the Buckeyes, who had only lost once the previous three years and were presumptive national champions, still meant a lot to his life. That experience was quite literally priceless.
We understand that professional players make a lot of money and that college players are aiming to make a lot of money, but we like to believe that the quest for glory trumps all other considerations during games. We expect slightly injured players to be held out against weak opponents (btw, the NCAA should also outlaw FBS-FCS matchups; mostly lopsided games really harm the sport), but we expect them to play through injuries, if at all possible, for big games.
It would be easy to accuse Fournette of being as calculating as McCaffrey, especially since he is sitting out a far more appealing matchup against Louisville, but the projected top 5 pick has already proven his commitment.
Fournettte was not even dressed before the Tigers warmed up to play Florida last month because of a serious ankle injury (which he is still carrying), but he insisted on playing after a pregame scuffle erupted. He was not effective and LSU lost, but the point is that he gave it the old college try. He didn’t care about his injury or his NFL future; he just wanted to run over Gators, and he wanted to help his team win.
McCaffrey’s decision may prove prudent, but I suspect he will end getting less out of football than Fournette.