Early Monday morning, Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey posted a statement on Twitter that he would skip playing in the Sun Bowl with the rest of his Stanford teammates, opting instead to begin focusing on draft preparations.
— Christian McCaffrey (@CMccaffrey5) December 19, 2016
The announcement comes a few days after LSU running back Leonard Fournette made a similar decision, opting out of playing in the Citrus Bowl to also prepare for the draft. In Fournette’s case, this makes a lot of sense. The junior missed four games this past season due to injury, and played at less than 100% in others (most notably the Florida game, in which he had to ask a coach to play). McCaffrey also spent a little time banged up this season, missing the Notre Dame game in October, although he wasn’t hurt nearly as often as Fournette was. But whether due to current injuries or fear of seriously injuring oneself in the bowl game, marquee players are starting to skip out on lesser bowls if they feel the risk isn’t worth the reward. And the thing is, that’s totally fine.
A lot of people in support of this decision will be quick to remind you of Jaylon Smith, the Notre Dame linebacker who, after a stellar junior season, blew out his knee in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. Had Smith opted instead to forego the bowl game to focus on draft prep, he likely wouldn’t have had to rely on a franchise gambling on his recovery for a good draft position. (The Cowboys took Smith in the second round, and their confidence in Smith’s recovery was partially due to the team’s physician being the one who performed his knee surgery.)
But while a situation like Smith’s is the worst case scenario, it isn’t necessarily the most likely. But the fact that it’s a possibility at all raises an important question: why play in a lesser bowl game that doesn’t matter?
People will list of plethora of reasons as to why these players should be playing for their teams in bowl season. The problem is that among those reasons are honor, commitment, and being a good teammate, and none of these things pay very well in the span of a month-long series of exhibition games. Honor doesn’t sign a check and commitment doesn’t get you a signing bonus. And if you really think NFL teams are going to look at this as an act of quitting on their team and hurting their draft stock, well I assure you that the players have already considered this, and have chosen to take that risk. This is a smarter risk, because the difference between playing in a bowl game and risking your career and not playing and risking your draft stock falling slightly is that the former could cost you millions while the latter would only cost you a couple thousand.
Besides, in a league as corporate as the NFL, making a smart business decision is fine, and intangibles like commitment to a team only matter once a player has been deemed the right fit for a program anyway. Most draft scouts won’t give a shit how committed you are to your college so long as you can assure them you’ll be committed to their organization at the professional level. You might think it sets a bad example by leaving your team early, but it’s a lot easier to show up for work every day when you’re, I don’t know, actually getting paid for it.
People will also argue that this is bad for the fans, but if we’re being honest, this isn’t true. Fans will watch anyway, because that’s what we do. We’ll have the T.V.s on at work, host watch parties with beer and food, and tune into the games anyway because it’s bowl season and we will always tune in. Whether or not marquee player is playing for Team A matters little so long as Team A and Team B are on our screens engaging in acts of football. No, the only losers here are the bowl sponsors that pick these teams and want maximum exposure. Hyundai and Buffalo Wild Wings probably aren’t thrilled that two of the top players in the country are skipping their bowl games, but then again, I had no clue either of these bowls were sponsored by their companies until this news broke, so maybe even they don’t lose here. Besides, Buffalo Wild Wings has enough to pay John Goodman to do voice-over for commercials, so I wouldn’t exactly refer to them as a struggling corporation, by any means.
Ultimately, the choice for these athletes not to play in a pointless game in which they won’t get paid and will risk their careers for said pointlessness is safe, logical, and a smart business decision that gives them the best possible chance to succeed in the future. Putting intangible and abstract concepts like honor in front of a young twenty-something and telling them that they’re more important than making millions of dollars within the next calendar year should sound like a stupid thing to do because, well, it is.