It turns out the great vision Louisiana State University running back Leonard Fournette and Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey displayed on the football field extends beyond it. Fournette and McCaffrey, two of the top running back prospects for the 2017 NFL Draft, can see that football is a business.
The two dynamic junior running backs have rocked the college sports industrial complex by deciding to sit out their teams’ meaningless bowl games to preserve their health and impending wealth. Their business decisions sparked a lesser prospect, Baylor senior Shock Linwood, to follow suit. Bowl committee members are shaking in their blazers. Some NFL scouts are shaking their heads in dismay at the notion kids could start skipping superfluous bowl games.
These players aren’t doing anything wrong. They’re just playing by the same rules as their future NFL employers, the ones who discard and devalue players like used razor blades in the name of business. NFL franchises, including the local edition in Foxborough, are constantly lauded for being unsentimental, clear-eyed, and pragmatic in their football judgments. They’re hailed for not letting emotion and blind loyalty cloud decisions.
So, why is it when their employees or future employees like Fournette and McCaffrey apply the same cold-blooded calculus they’re tagged as disloyal, dishonorable, and selfish? It’s the height of hypocrisy to criticize the motives of these college football players when they’re just behaving like the folks who are going to determine their pro football careers do. McCaffrey certainly knows this; his father, Ed, enjoyed a 13-year NFL career.
There are some NFL types who are angered by the audacity of players from their free farm system declining to strap on the pads one more time without pay in an irrelevant game in order to protect their future earnings.
Stanford, LSU, and Baylor were eliminated from the College Football Playoff conversation long ago. Baylor (6-6) owes its Cactus Bowl appearance to the bloated bowl schedule, so missing the game is far from a crime, like say a super extreme DUI.
With 40 Football Championship bowl games, “meaningless bowl game” is redundant. It’s no great loss that we won’t see McCaffrey play on Dec. 30 in the Sun Bowl or Fournette take the field against Louisville on Dec. 31 in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl. The potential for loss is theirs.
Self-righteous outrage isn’t going to bring back the wages that will be lost if Fournette, who has been compared with Adrian Peterson, or McCaffrey, a potential first-round pick, blow out their knees in the name of television inventory and corporate sponsorship exposure. Those are the two true raisons d’etre of bowl games.
We want kids who attend college to mature into adults. Being an adult is about making difficult and sometimes unpopular decisions, as well as weighing the consequences of your actions. That’s what Fournette and McCaffrey have done.
Some of the same player personnel types condemning their actions and questioning their dedication are the ones who booze like out-of-control college kids at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, where they convene to evaluate draft prospects.
Last bowl season, Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith became a cautionary tale for college players. The Butkus Award winner as the nation’s top linebacker, Smith was a presumptive top-5 pick until he suffered a catastrophic knee injury in Notre Dame’s Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State.
Smith tore the ACL and MCL in his left knee and suffered nerve damage. He slipped to the second round, where he was selected No. 34 overall by the Dallas Cowboys. He still is not healthy enough to play or practice this season.
His bowl experience and being there one last time for his teammates cost him almost $20 million in his four-year rookie deal. Smith has said that even considering his current situation he still would have played last New Year’s Day for the Fighting Irish.
It’s worth noting that both Fournette and McCaffrey are not fragile, bubble-wrap-required running backs. McCaffrey finished seventh in the nation in rushing (1,603 yards) and missed only one game, despite suffering a lower-body injury in October.
Fournette suffered an ankle injury in August during preseason camp. The injury reoccurred multiple times during the season, according to The Advocate newspaper. Fournette finished with 843 yards rushing and eight touchdowns in seven games this season.
On Nov. 19, a fired-up Fournette, who was part of a pregame altercation with a Florida assistant coach, gutted it out when he wasn’t expected to play. Clearly physically impeded, LSU had to remove him from the game in the second half.
Some say that players who skip bowl games are letting down their teammates. That’s understandable.
However, coaches often like to play in bowl games because they’re using the practice time to get a jump on next season’s team. These teams just got an advanced look at what life without these players will be like. That can only help them.
Don’t cry for LSU. The Tigers have another stud running back earmarked for the NFL in Derrius Guice. He led LSU in rushing this season with 1,249 yards. McCaffrey’s backup at Stanford, Bryce Love, averaged 7.4 yards per carry this season. Linwood wasn’t even Baylor’s leading rusher.
But if you still have a problem with any of these guys skipping out on their teams before their bowl games then you surely must be offended that college coaches do the same every bowl season, right?
In 2009, local boy Brian Kelly informed his players he was leaving Cincinnati for Notre Dame and that he would not coach them in the Sugar Bowl.
“Just blindsided by the fact that it’s a business,” then Cincinnati wide receiver Mardy Gilyard said. “People lose sight of that. At the end of the day, NCAA football is a business. People have got to make business decisions.”
That’s exactly what Fournette and McCaffrey did.
The end of the college bowl bonanza as we know it is not their concern. Starting their NFL careers healthy is.Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.