Now that Stanford RB Christian McCaffrey has elected to sit out the Sun Bowl, how many others follow his lead in the future?
Mr. All-Purpose over the past two seasons added a new skill to an already thick resume, without withstanding a lick of punishment—he’s made it socially acceptable to sit out a bowl game when perfectly healthy.
For the better part of the past generation, big-time NFL talents participating in small-time bowl games has been a recipe for apathy. I’ve heard it over and over again from kids, both seniors and those set to leave school early. What’s the point of one more game, with little at stake, when the dream and the financial reward of a professional career lurk tantalizingly around the corner? For that athlete, McCaffrey has helped pave the way for him to make a decision that best serves his future and the future of his family.
Plenty of players in the past would have loved using the entire month of December to recharge their minds and bodies in preparation for the draft. It’s an extremely competitive process, and a head start could head-on impact draft grade and first contract size. But no one wanted to be slapped with the seemingly selfish stigma of voluntarily sitting out a bowl game, so countless players sucked it up and played despite fearing what a serious injury could mean at this stage of their careers. McCaffrey’s courageous stance, in the face of staunch criticism about his character and intentions, has helped chip away at that barrier for future student-athletes.
He ought to be applauded, not derided, for taking such a bold action.
I like bowl games. Always have. Undoubtedly always will. But I don’t like where the postseason has gone in the 21st century. It has become an increasingly distended and watered down vehicle providing little more than content for a single TV network and upticks in commerce for cities across the country. Don’t we ride the backs of college athletes enough during the regular season? Do we really need to saddle them up one more time for a blatant money grab?
I’ve long wondered what the impact of a 40-game, 80-team postseason that includes 5-7 programs might be. It’s now becoming clear to the rational thinker. We’ve completely devalued the meaning of qualifying for a bowl game, once a benchmark for a successful college football season. And by devaluing the games, it makes it that much easier for players with pro aspirations to sit or tap the brakes rather than risk injury.
Are we looking at a future in which coaches need to burn redshirt years just to fill a depth chart in December? Of course not. There’s only a handful of kids each year that’ll even fit the criteria of potential first or second-day draft pick playing in an off-Broadway bowl game. However, awaiting the to-bowl-or-not-to-bowl decisions of those top prospects is likely to become a trend each December. No one wants to be the next Jaylon Smith, the surefire high pick who’s still recovering from a freak injury in last year’s Fiesta Bowl.
College athletes have absolutely no leverage throughout their careers. No leverage, that is, until they’re on the brink of their final game as an amateur. It is then, as McCaffrey has shined a light on, when they possess serious clout. Players have the ability to make adult decisions that impact both their future and the allure of a particular bowl game. It’s a tough call, no doubt, but how can we dog a player for simply being judicious at the most important stage of his long and arduous athletic journey? For a bowl game that has become increasingly unimportant in the grand scheme of a season? You’ll have to do better than that.
McCaffrey isn’t Curt Flood, the pioneering former St. Louis Cardinal whose lawsuit against Major League Baseball in 1970 ultimately led to greater freedom for professional athletes. But the star Cardinal running back has challenged the status quo by taking charge of his future and saying no thank you to this year’s Sun Bowl. Sure, McCaffrey had his own interests at heart, but his choice will somewhat lower the heat on future players who’d have otherwise been vilified from all angles for abstaining from the postseason.