When I am not crafting stories about Northwest sports or the town of Marana, I dabble in sports talk radio. One thing that drives a majority of sports talk radio, both on a local and a national basis, is controversy. Every few days there seems to be a new sports controversy to talk (or write) about.
The controversy du jour is the decision by several college football players to bypass playing in their bowl game to “prepare for the NFL draft.” In reality these players are skipping the games in an effort to not get injured. Last year, Notre Dame’s Jaylon Smith injured his knee in the Fiesta Bowl and a high first-round pick suddenly dropped to the second round of the NFL draft.
This has led to players like LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey to bypass their team’s bowl games.
I have real mixed emotions about this. As someone who not only grew up playing football but also coached the game, the core message is the sacrifice of the individual for the good of the team. When done right, football is a great character builder. A good coach can create good kids, good men. It can teach toughness, selflessness and teamwork. For those reasons I hate the fact these kids are skipping their bowl games.
But I do get it.
Neither LSU nor Stanford are playing in a major bowl game. Both teams had disappointing seasons. When Smith got hurt he was playing in the Fiesta Bowl, one of the biggest bowl games. Stanford is playing in the Hyundai Sun Bowl in El Paso against North Carolina. LSU is in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl. In some ways, it seems silly to risk injury for the Sun Bowl. Both players’ teammates support them, but it just seems wrong.
There are some out there that want to revoke scholarships or not allow them to further use the team’s facilities, but that is going too far. While I would have a hard time not being with my teammates for one final game—guys I have spent three to five years training with, going to battle with, bleeding with—I can wrap my head around the thought process. These guys have a once in a lifetime opportunity to play in the NFL. While the perks of being a college football player are immense, including a college degree if you want it, you don’t get many chances to be a millionaire.
There are several ironies to the situation. While fans of the programs are irate, having a first-round NFL draft pick will do more for the school and football recruiting than a win in a second- or third-tier bowl game. Hearing Fournette’s or McCaffrey’s name called on draft day will do far more for LSU and Stanford in terms of recruiting than hoisting the Sun Bowl or Citrus Bowl trophies. I am not saying that fully justifies sitting out, but it makes it easier to swallow.
Another irony is that Fournette could potentially make more money getting hurt than he can as an NFL player. The running back has battled injuries over the past few seasons and took out an insurance policy against career-ending injury. If he is hurt and does not play in the NFL, Fournette would make $10 million. Although he is most likely a first-round draft pick, there is no guarantee he will play long enough to make $10 million.
Some are split on what an athlete owes a university and vice versa. Some argue that an athlete reaps the benefit of a full scholarship as well as the other perks and should honor that commitment until the time they leave school. In the case of McCaffrey, that is a Stanford education. Others feel that universities that make tens of millions of dollars off of the athletes should make some concessions to the student-athletes. While I tend to agree more with the former than the latter, I do believe at the end of the day it is up to the school and the athlete to come to a decision together.
What I am more concerned about is the trickle-down and trickle-up effect of this trend. We have already seen it in Major League Baseball, when Steven Stasburgh let his agent and his own medical advisors shut him down for the season while the Washington Nationals were still in the playoff hunt. How long before a high school athlete with a scholarship sits out a regular season game when his or her team is eliminated for the playoffs? Could we see a scenario where a player leaves a team as soon as they receive a scholarship offer?
Before you scoff, there have already been golfers to skip a final high school season to focus on working with a coach to prepare for college. Multi-sport athletes will often drop other sports once they accept a scholarship.
I am not outraged by the actions of these college players, but it goes against my concept of team and I do think it could potentially change the landscape of college football, and maybe sports on a variety of levels.