As I sat and watched No. 18 Stanford win a tough Sun Bowl game without their best player against North Carolina, it struck me how much college football has changed and how far it still has to go before we can truly call NCAA business a fair and student-driven entity.
It remains money-driven and if players can’t get a slice of the pie, while universities, Presidents and coaches rake in millions off the backs of young aspiring students, then the complicated, controversial and contradictory conversation about paying players is going to continue to gain steam.
And inevitably star players are going to circumvent the system of exploitation by bowing out of Bowl games rather than risk injury and potential millions prior to the NFL Draft.
Bowl games used to be the grand finale for top tier players and seniors set to embark on their next careers. For some, a pro career awaits and the fortune that comes with it. The Bowl Games used to be a fan’s final chance to see their Heisman candidate put it down on the amateur level and ride off into the sunset as a legend of his particular university.
Now star players are viewing these games as possible impediments to their NFL dreams. LSU junior Leonard Fournette is sitting out Saturday’s Citrus Bowl against Louisville and Baylor’s Shock Linwood, a senior, skipped the Cactus Bowl against Boise State to focus on his draft prep.
For the past two years Stanford junior Christian McCaffrey has been one of the most devastating backs in college football and was a Heisman front-runner before injuries and some unexpected losses deterred his campaign.
But he announced a few weeks ago that he wouldn’t be playing in Friday’s bowl game.
When Stanford was stopped on third and goal in the fourth quarter with a chance to put the game away and had to settle for a field goal and a 25-17 lead, I couldn’t help but think that McCaffrey, who rushed for 1603 yards and scored 13 TDs would have been able to get a yard or two. Instead the Cardinals had to survive a TD by UNC with 25 seconds left and only a failed two-point conversation helped David Shaw’s boys escape with a narrow 25-23 victory.
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More than the fact that these college teams are weakened without their superstars in what amounts to the biggest game of the season for the students and the school who collects phat checks for Bowl success, it’s just a shame that players are forced to go this route as the NCAA is yet to figure out how much a player's service to a university is really worth.
An NFL personnel executive summed up the case pretty well to FOX Sports’ Bruce Feldman:
“Put yourself in their shoes, an injury could change the course of the rest of their lives,” the veteran NFL personnel man said. “We’re not talking about a left guard here. We’re talking about a skill (position) player who is a huge target. That’s the reality of it.
“Look at what these coaches are making now. Those guys are making $5 or $6 million a year and they may pressure these kids to play? Look at what these coaches and ADs are doing. It’s OK for them to leave, but it’s not OK for players to think about their futures? For coaches to (be critical), that’s incredibly selfish. Hold on a second here, guy. You pressure these kids to play, and then one of them (suffers a career-altering injury) and it’s, ‘I love you, and you’re a great teammate. Sorry about that.’ And it’s all for some bowl game who no one cares about? That’s a joke. I’m looking at it practically. If it was your son, what are you gonna say? It makes sense.”
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While most folks understand the logic in not playing, it rubbed some football guys the wrong way.
Cowboys rookie sensation Ezekiel Elliott isn’t hating on them, but he doesn’t really agree with the move. He tweeted:
"All these young guys deciding to skip their bowl games .I would do anything to play one more time with my brothers in that scarlet and gray
One last time to honor your university and one last chance to play with your boys who will be your brothers for life.
And there is a difference between not coming back for your last year and not finishing your last season."
Indeed, but there’s no honor in college football. Especially when the players risk it all every time they step on the field and benefit the least from the results of the game. All is fair in war, football and the NCAA. A lot of us just wish there was another way.