The latest drama in college football — star players quitting their teams so they can be more marketable to the NFL — has two generally defensible positions and a number of side issues.
It’s not likely to be a factor for those teams like Alabama which have the opportunity to play for a national championship. The Crimson Tide will play Washington in the Peach Bowl and Ohio State will meet Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl as semifinal games in the College Football Playoff.
Those are two of 40 bowl games that are part of the college football tradition of post-season opportunities. A bowl game is not just another game tacked on to the regular season. Traditionally, it has been a reward for the players.
This year there have been announcements from LSU tailback Leonard Fournette that he will not be with his team in the Citrus Bowl against Louisville; from Stanford’s all-purpose star Christian McCaffrey that he will pass on playing in the Sun Bowl against North Carolina; and from Baylor’s Shock Linwood of Baylor that he will not play against Boise State in the Cactus Bowl.
Every case is different. Fournette has been playing injured and probably needs the healing time and probably is the least likely to be criticized by those who are upset by these decisions.
Those who defend the decisions point to the situation of former Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith, who won the Butkus Award, was projected as a top pick in the NFL draft, but suffered a knee injury in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. Smith, a junior who elected to go out early despite the injury, became a second round draft pick by the Dallas Cowboys, and received a four-year contract at $6.5 million, $4.5 million guaranteed. Pretty good, but probably $15-$20 million less than what he might have received if healthy and drafted in the top five. (Although this is speculative, it is a reasonable argument.)
For those who accept this, it is also accepting that college football is simply the minor league of the NFL.
Defenders say these stars have made millions for their universities, and now they have a right to protect their opportunities to make millions for themselves. They do have that right to bail and their teams, and it may become a trend.
After all, they say, it’s a “meaningless” bowl game.
There is another side of the argument.
Meaningless to whom? Maybe not to your teammates who have been blocking for you.
Think back to Gene Stallings’s pronouncement, “If you don’t think a game is important, just lose it and you’ll see how important it was.”
If a bowl game is meaningless, what about non-conference games in the regular season?
One of the big news items of last season was not players leaving before the season was over, but rather some star players returning to their teams. At Alabama that included the likes of safety Eddie Jackson (who suffered a broken leg this season, though he is expected to be able to participate in the NFL combine), defensive end Jonathan Allen (expected to be among the top players taken in this year’s draft), and tight end O.J. Howard, the Offensive MVP of last year’s national championship game.
Howard was asked about the trend.
“It’s tough,” he said. “You can see both sides of the stories, where some of them are banged up, they say, and they don't want to risk anything else.
“If they were playing for a championship, I don't think those guys would sit out.
“I think it all comes down to your coach. If your coach allows you to do it and you all agree on it, you can't be mad at the kids, because you can see where they're coming from. I could see where the teammates are coming from about finishing the season with us, but ultimately I think it comes down to your coach, if he allows them do that.”
Would it happen at Alabama?
“I don't think it would,” Howard said. “Coach Saban would encourage us to do it but I really don't think a lot of guys on our team would want to do it. We build such a bond offseason training hard with each other, no one would quit on anybody without anything bad happening. Unless it's an injury that takes you away from the season, but no one would, I don't think, just quit on us.”
Alabama Coach Nick Saban admonishes his team to avoid clutter. There has been some clutter in this argument.
For one, it is pointed out, coaches often leave their teams before a bowl game to take another job. That is an unfortunate part of the business, but teams needing new coaches are usually not in bowl games, and for the most part they want the new man to be on the job right now.
That is not the same as a player leaving the team before a bowl game for his NFL career. That pro career doesn’t start in December.
The comparison is apples to oranges.
Some maintain that the bowl games don’t matter and it shows in lack of ticket sales. True, many bowls do not have good attendance, but that’s at least in part owing to other factors, notably the cost to fans. That these are television events (primarily ESPN, which owns many of the bowls) doesn’t matter.
Bruce Arians, a former Alabama assistant coach who has been very successful as a head coach in the NFL with the Arizona Cardinals, was asked about players leaving their teams before a bowl game in order to be more NFL ready. “That would concern me,” Arians said on NBC Sports Pro Football Talk. “Depending on what their situation is as a team, because this is a team sport. But you’ve had a couple of guys get injured in the last couple of years. Agents have a lot to say about it. Parents have a lot to say about it.
“But it would concern me.”
He said he would like to see the players in their bowl games. “I would love to see that. I would also like them come out of the game healthy,” Arians said.
As for agents, Drew Rosenhaus, who is regarded as a “super agent,” said, “If a player asked me as a player agent I would recommend they play their last game.”
Ezekial Elliott, former Ohio State star now with Dallas Cowboys, said he would want to play one last game with his Ohio State teammates, though he has reportedly added that circumstances may be different for other players.