Mike Carlson: Should NFL draft prospects skip their college bowl games?

Christian McCaffrey and Leonard Fournette are sitting out the games this year

Leonard Fournette, LSU, college football,

Image: Gerald Herbert AP/Press Association Images

"Football is the greatest team sport there is," said University of Miami head coach Mark Richt, "and I think until the season is over, you should be with your team."

You might argue whether gridiron is indeed the greatest team sport, but it certainly demands as much of its players as any other, and fosters an ethic of sacrifice by individuals on behalf of the team.

I wrote about this here on Newstalk not so long ago, when Dallas Cowboys' quarterback Tony Romo returned from an injury and took the unprecedented step of defusing any potential controversy between him and his replacement, the unexpectedly successful Dak Prescott. This was, to me, the essence of what team sport should be about.

But to Richt, and much of America, that essence has been challenged by the recent decisions of three college stars to leave their teams on the eve of their post-season bowl games.

All three have cited preparation for the NFL 'combine', where prospects for the upcoming college draft are weighed, measured, tested and interviewed by NFL teams. What they really mean is they have decided that the risk of injury in their last game for their college, and the resultant tumble down the draft ratings, is not worth the potential benefit of a win in what is, after all, an exhibition game.

It's no coincidence that all three players are running backs, high-profile stars at what is arguably the most injury-prone position on the field. In fact, a defensive tackle at Oklahoma, Charles Walker, had walked off his team in November, ostensibly to prepare for the NFL draft, and the nation barely noticed.

They did notice when Leonard Fournette, of Lousiana State University, was the first to announce his decision. Then came Christian McCaffrey of Stanford, who last year set a national record for most all-purpose yards (running, catching, and returning kicks) in a season, and finally Baylor's Shock Linwood.

Former Ohio State player and now football pundit Kirk Herbstreit tweeted on behalf of the media herd: “what happened to loving the game and wanting to compete one more time with your boys?” Which drew an avalanche of tweets asking if he'd be working for his network for free for the rest of the season.

There are two issues. The first is what the players lose. The bowl games were once something special. They are named for the Rose Bowl, a bowl-shaped stadium built in Pasadena California to host a bowl game on New Year's Day after the city's Tournament of Roses Parade. It began in 1902, and became an annual event in 1916.

With the addition of five more games in the 1930s, football became a way of having teams from different sections of the country face off, in the days before air travel and television made regional rivalries less important, and the lure of sunny climes less fantastical.

When I played my last college game in 1971, there were 11 bowl games. In 1990 there were 13. But the growth of multi-channel TV created a huge market for sport. Six new bowls were added in the '90s, 12 in the '00s, and another seven in just the last two years. That makes a total of 40 bowl games, meaning 80 teams are bowl-eligible out of a total of 128 teams playing in the top division of college football.

A player might be forgiven not being lured by the glamour of the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, The Military Bowl, The Dollar General (not a cut-rate Military) Bowl or the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl.

But even more telling was the advent of the championship playoff. Americans didn't like the ambiguity of having a champion decided by polls taken after the various bowls; I could still debate today with my commentary buddy Kevin Cadle whether or not Penn State should have been national champions in 1969. But now polls select four teams to play in two traditional bowl games as semifinals for an additional 41st bowl, for the national title.

Alabama's Nick Saban, college football's most successful coach, recognised the problem. "As soon as we had a playoff, we minimised the importance of the other games", he said in response to the players' announcements.

Of course his team are prohibitive favourites for this year's title; none of his players would consider quitting with that at stake. So Fournette will miss LSU's match in the wonderfully oxymoronic Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl in Orlando against Louisville. McCaffrey skips the Sun Bowl in El Paso against North Carolina and Linwood passes for Baylor, with a 6-6 record, against Boise State in the Motel 6 Cactus Bowl in Phoenix.

The second issue is what the players lose, or don't want to risk losing. Last season Jaylon Smith, a linebacker at Notre Dame, was projected to be drafted among the top half-dozen picks. In the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State, he tore a knee ligament.

He was drafted in round two with the thirty-fourth pick, by Dallas, who could afford to give him a full season to heal. His four year rookie contract was worth $6.5 million, but his contract in his projected draft slot would have been worth $20 million or more.

Remember, college players are not paid by universities who rake in tens of millions of dollars from football. It's the college coaches who are paid in the millions at that level; former San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh gets upwards of $9 million per year at Michigan.

Linwood's early departure made sense because he had already been suspended from the team for 'attitude issues' and lost his starting job. Fournette, who battled a lingering ankle injury all season after a huge sophomore year, told upset LSU fans “I'm not a quitter. I tried to play through injury the best I could.”

When that failed to slow down the torrent of abuse, Fournette, who grew up poor and has said most of his family has never seen him play because they are 'locked up', then tweeted a picture of himself standing with his young daughter. The caption read: "Only person I owe something too" (sic).

McCaffrey's story is slightly different. His father Ed was a star receiver at Stanford, and then for the Denver Broncos. His junior year season was - like Fournette's - less successful than 2015, and - like Fournette - no one expected him to return to college for his final year.

But last year he ran for 172 yards, caught passes for another 108, and returned kicks for another 88, setting a Rose Bowl record as Stanford crushed Iowa 45-16. He's already insured against injury affecting his draft status, but that wasn't enough of a guarantee, as he'll need to persuade pro scouts he's more than just a jack of all trades.

When it comes to players, Dallas Cowboys' other star rookie, former Ohio State runner Ezekiel Elliott, said: "I would do anything to play one more time with my brothers," but more players sided with La'Varr Arrington, who said: "we all know the NCAA (who control college football) is about theirs."

Many pointed to the hypocrisy of NCAA rules which allow teams to recruit coaches after their seasons have finished, but before their bowl games. Already this year, Western Kentucky's Jeff Brohm and South Florida's Willie Taggert have moved on to bigger and better jobs, leaving their players to fend for themselves in the bowl games. Notre Dame's Brian Kelly left Western Michigan for Cincinnati before a bowl game; then quit Cincinnati for Notre Dame before his undefeated team took on Florida in the Orange Bowl. They lost.

College football is arguably the third-biggest sport in America, and the money it generates goes to everyone except the players.

The average NFL career lasts only three and a half seasons; getting your money upfront, before the almost-inevitable injuries hit, becomes imperative for players who are sometimes 23 or 24 when they leave college, often without a degree. College players are professional in every sense except getting paid, and the idea that they approach the college game as professionals irks many, even in the NFL, particularly because it questions that ethos of sacrificing for your team.

Former quarterback Danny Kanell wondered if Dak Prescott should stop playing for Dallas, because based on his tremendous season, he's now underpaid. “He's got to get his, right?” Kannell tweeted. Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians questioned whether he'd want to draft a player who'd left his team, but just last year drafted Robert Nkemdiche, who was suspended by his Mississippi team before their bowl game when he fell out of a hotel window and was then arrested for marijuana possession.

Many college players said it would be good if these players eschewing the bowl games led to college players getting some payment. Though the NCAA will fight this tooth and nail, it may be inevitable. The exposure television brings could force the money issue to the fore, and money, inevitably, talks.

As Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said last week: "That's just how society is right now. I don't think it should be a shock...things have changed since older days."