At what point are college football players allowed to look out for themselves?
After entertaining the masses for years by putting their bodies at risk, raking in huge money for their universities and the NCAA as a whole, it feels to me that these players deserve to look out for the future, specifically their physical and financial well being. That theory is currently under the microscope, however, in the wake of announcements by Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey, specifically the latter, that they will not be playing in their teams’ respective bowl games.
With a future in the NFL on his mind, McCaffrey announced Monday that he will sit out his final game at Stanford, the Sun Bowl, to focus on prepping for the draft in May (read: he doesn’t want to get hurt in a glorified exhibition game). This announcement was met with intense support and equally intense opposition. While I feel as though there are legitimate points made by both sides, I think it’s only right that, after expecting so much from these players during their college careers, they get the chance to take care of themselves and get ready for a huge upcoming payday in the NFL.
It’s hard to form a holistically cohesive argument for this scenario because there are so many layers to the story, so many different issues coming into play all at once. There’s the cut-throat nature of the NFL Draft, whether or not college players deserve compensation beyond their scholarships, abandoning teammates before the season’s last game, the list goes on. But with all of these discussion points, it’s important to not lose sight of the fact that these athletes, these kids, are people with their own thoughts, feelings and desires. I know there is a sizable group of people who don’t want to accept this, but I have a hunch Christian McCaffrey has bigger desires and dreams than winning the Sun Bowl.
The amount of money on the line for guys like McCaffrey and Fournette is unimaginable to anyone who is a non-elite athlete, generally speaking. It just doesn’t make sense to risk losing out on millions of dollars if you frankly don’t have to. If one of these guys, or any high-profile prospect, suffered a bowl game injury and it tarnished their draft stock, it would lead to a gigantic change in future income. Yes, a second-round pick is still going to make an absurd amount of money compared to the average American, but there’s a huge difference between early second-round pick money and early first-round pick money. A great and oft-cited example of this is Jaylon Smith, who, despite insisting Monday that he would do it all over again, lost out on a life-changing amount of money by getting injured in last season’s Fiesta Bowl.
It’s hard to pass up on the chance to make an extra ~$19 million, right? I can’t think of any reasonable person who wouldn’t sacrifice something they have no incentive to participate in, with the exchange being generational wealth. In addition to that, an injury could be life-altering, not just career-altering. A destroyed knee, a severe concussion, these are things that could have major implications beyond football, especially the latter. Again, there is no incentive to play in the bowl game for McCaffrey, Fournette or frankly many other players with huge earning potential coming in a prospective NFL career. They’re not receiving a game check, they don’t really need to worry about scholarships since they’re leaving school soon anyway and there’s no sort of benefit from winning outside of a trophy and a couple changes to your program’s Wikipedia article. With so much money on the table, why take the risk?
Then there’s the problem with the NFL Draft process itself, leaving these guys in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. If you play, the risk of injury is present and you’re putting more wear and tear on your body, which is a major concern for NFL teams when it comes to any player, specifically running backs. Meanwhile, if you decide to preserve your body and think of your future, anonymous front office people will call you a selfish pussy. Well, coward, if looking out for your future is what makes you a “selfish pussy,” I guess the vast majority of people fall into that category.
All this being said, I do see some validity in arguments from the other side. If I was one of McCaffrey’s or Fournette’s teammates, I may feel a bit let down that our best player (arguably so in Fournette’s case) is sitting out what is supposed to be a major event for our program. But, by the same token, I like to think that I’d respect the decision to take care of yourself when the NCAA and NFL aren’t.
I understand the argument that it is important to stand beside your team, your boys, your brothers, one last time and fight together as a unit in the hopes of one last collective victory. That is a very noble and, in my opinion, understandable sentiment. With that in mind, does it serve any importance beyond sentimental value? Does taking the field one last time with your squad make any major impact other than making you (or ourselves, if we want to get very macro and existential) feel better? I understand why a guy like Kirk Herbstreit, a person I respect a great deal and who loves his Buckeyes dearly, would feel this way, but I think it’s very unfortunate that such a large group of people is ignoring the needs and desires of the individual in order to focus on perceived team goals.
There are so many different takes flying in on this topic, from former players, analysts and fans alike. A tweet sent out by Marcus Lattimore resonates with me more than any other I’ve seen so far, one in which he tells McCaffrey and Fournette to “go get it.” Maybe it’s because I love the man and am biased because of it, but knowing the hellacious nature of his life-changing knee injury, I think it’s wise to take his advice and go get paid while you can. Football is an unforgiving game, a game which doesn’t love the human body no matter how much humanity may love it; if you’re offered money to play it, you better take advantage of it while you can.
I love Christian McCaffrey as a player, next to Marcus Lattimore he is my favorite college football player I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t looking forward to him running wild on North Carolina in the Sun Bowl to cap off his college career. But I’m also extremely excited to see what he can do on Sundays in the NFL, and I don’t want him to risk that life for one game that, frankly, has no real impact. These players absolutely must look out for their futures and for themselves, because the NCAA and the NFL sure won’t.