Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 22, 2016

Reality Intrudes On The Bowl Season

Another college bowl season is well underway, with nine games played and another thirty-three to go, capped off by the College Football Playoff National Championship game in Tampa on January 9th. As this is being written play is getting underway in the always popular and oh so important Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. The schedule requires that more than eighty college football programs are deemed to be bowl-eligible; but bowl-worthy is another matter. Every year there are second-tier bowl games giving teams with marginal records a showcase they don’t really deserve, and this season is no different. Next Tuesday the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl features a 7-5 Army team that upset Navy to secure only its second winning season in the last decade and a half against North Texas. The Mean Green, at 5-7 and 3-5, couldn’t manage a winning record either overall or within its eight game Conference USA schedule.

Against this backdrop of too many bowl games that mean too little a new and unexpected development has now surfaced. First Leonard Fournette of 19th ranked LSU, and this week Christian McCaffrey of number 16 Stanford announced that they would not play in their schools’ respective bowl games. Instead both plan to begin preparations for the NFL Draft. The two running backs follow Charles Walker, a defensive lineman for Oklahoma, who didn’t even wait until bowl season to end his college career. He left the Sooners with two regular season games remaining to focus on the draft.

Walker is seen as a likely third round pick, but McCaffrey and Fournette are expected to go higher. Last year McCaffrey finished as the runner-up in the Heisman Trophy voting after setting a record for all-purpose yards. He couldn’t match those numbers this season, but is still expected to be drafted no later than the second round. After a great season at Louisiana State, Fournette is certain to be a first round choice, probably the first running back to be taken off the board.

The motivation of all three college players is obvious. Each is in line for the first big payday of their young lives. As proverbial “student-athletes” they are under no contractual obligation to suit up, and by playing in what amounts to an exhibition that will earn their schools a great deal of money but have zero impact on their personal bank accounts they run the risk of injury.

Just last season Jaylon Smith was a highly touted linebacker for Notre Dame, projected to be selected early in the draft’s first round, perhaps within the top five picks. But in one decisive play at last January’s Fiesta Bowl, Smith tore his ACL. He was still drafted, but not until the second round when the Dallas Cowboys made him the thirty-fourth player to be taken. Instead of signing a multi-year contract worth $20 million or more, Smith became a Cowboy on a deal worth less than one-third as much; and he has yet to play a single snap in the NFL.

Walker, Fournette and now McCaffrey have all been subjected to heavy criticism. Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops accused Walker of quitting on his teammates. Ezekiel Elliott, the star rookie running back for Dallas, took to Twitter to blast Fournette and McCaffrey for abandoning their “brothers.” This was particularly interesting since Elliott left Ohio State after his junior year, which he hastened to tweet was entirely different, without specifying how that is.

It’s worth noting that neither Oklahoma, LSU nor Stanford are in the College Football Playoff. The Sooners are slated for the highest profile bowl game of the three, with a January 2nd matchup against Auburn in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. The Tigers are headed to the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl to play Louisville on New Year’s Eve, and the Cardinal take on North Carolina one day earlier in the Hyundai Sun Bowl. All three are ultimately meaningless games, though ones that will greatly enrich each school.

To the calls for nobly honoring one’s school and teammates, Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers offered some clear-eyed reality about the NCAA and the millions of dollars generated by big-time college football. In a radio interview Rodgers said “The NCAA makes so much money off of their kids and they put ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous, restrictions on everything that they can do. At the same time [the NCAA] is making billions and billions of dollars, and you give these kids a bowl game, a couple ribbons and a Game Boy. We’ve got to think of other ways to help these kids out because there’s a lot of kids who get hurt in college and then don’t make it to the NFL and don’t have insurance and their entire lives are changed when they put their bodies on the line for their school.”

“We talk in our sport a lot of the numbers associated with unemployment and bankruptcy after guys have retired, especially guys that retire young and are out of the league in two to three years, what about the kids who never got a chance to make it to the NFL and are out there having a hard time trying to find work based on lingering concussion issues or degenerative knee conditions or any of the various injuries that our fellow brothers are having in the college ranks and then they’re not able to play. It affects them for the rest of their lives and they have no compensation or help from the school that they put their bodies and their lives on the line for.”

Collegiate athletic programs have a unique business model. With the two most popular sports of football and basketball major NCAA programs generate massive revenue while paying the players, the “product” that fans pay to see and television networks pay to broadcast, essentially nothing. The fig leaf of providing an education is all too often nothing more than that; a supposedly serious mission that is belied by low graduation rates and regular stories of schools failing to meet NCAA standards, such as the current mess at Rutgers.

Aaron Rodgers makes solid points, although the obvious answer of compensating college players is not about to happen. But no one should blame any young athlete for putting his financial future ahead of the likes of the Popeyes Bahamas Bowl. After all, these meaningless exhibition games will go on, and the power conferences and all of those bowl-eligible teams will get their money, whether they’re worthy or not.

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