By Patrick Wareham, Staff Writer
The largest controversy surrounding the college football bowl season was the topic of high profile players such as running backs Christian McCaffrey of Stanford and Leonard Fournette of Louisiana State electing to skip their respective teams’ bowl games and begin preparation for the NFL Draft Combine. Their scrutinized decision have been among the hottest topics in sports for the past few months.
Several star college football players in years past, including linebacker Jaylon Smith of Notre Dame and running back Marcus Lattimore of South Carolina, were surefire first round draft picks before suffering devastating injuries late in their final collegiate seasons. Smith went from being a top-five caliber pick with the likelihood of landing a four-year, $19 million contract to a second-rounder, earning a four-year $6.4 million deal. Lattimore, once a Heisman contender, failed to play one down of football in the NFL before retiring at age 23.
The NCAA is a multi-million dollar juggernaut of business, so to talk about whether or not these athletes should be paid or not is an entirely different discussion. Fournette and McCaffrey are making wise business decisions, and while I respect their choices, I do not believe in them. While LSU and Stanford are not playing in a New Year’s Six Bowl, both players have one final opportunity to throw on the pads and go to battle with their teammates and coaches.
The ESPN GameDay crew had a heated discussion leading up to the College Football Playoff semifinals on December 31. Commentator and former Ohio State quarterback Kirk Herbstreit criticized the players choosing to skip their bowl games, asserting that “it goes against the overall concept of the roots of what the sport is. It’s about the team.”
On December 30, over 11 million viewers watched in pain as Michigan tight end Jake Butt, winner of the Mackey Award as the nation’s best tight end, agonizingly tore his ACL against Florida State in the Orange Bowl. Unlike Fournette and McCaffrey, Butt was willing to take the risk of leaving millions of dollars on the table with a bright future in the NFL and play one final game for his college team. Rated the third best tight end on Mel Kiper’s big board, Butt was unlikely to go first round, but this does not take away the fact that Butt put the concept of team ahead of his individual pursuits and aspirations. On his Twitter account Butt posted a heartfelt message to his fans: “Never once crossed my mind to sit this game out, and I would never change that mindset. I play this game, because I love it, my teammates, coaches….”
During halftime of the Rose Bowl, analyst Joey Galloway expressed his belief that the trend set by Fournette and McCaffrey would not only affect college football in the future but also would have the possibility to trickle down to the high school level of sports where high school athletes with college scholarship offers may opt to sit out of their games in order to prevent injury from derailing their collegiate careers.
The bottom line is that football is a team sport. To put oneself ahead of the team goes against everything that the sport stands for. While I understand where Fournette and McCaffrey are coming from in terms of financial security and futures in the NFL, I cannot applaud them. I have much more respect for players like Jake Butt and Jaylon Smith, players who embody not only what football is all about but what team sports are all about. These young men put everything they had on the line for their teams. An athlete who sits out a competition in fear of injury is not a true competitor. After all, having something at stake is what makes sports what they are.
Photograph Credits: Sporting News