By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Collegiate running backs Christian McCaffrey and Leonard Fournette have brought about the bad sports opinions of the bad sports people.
It’s very bad.
In case you missed it, McCaffrey and Fournette decided to skip their team’s bowl games — the Hyundai Sun Bowl for Stanford and Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl for LSU, respectively — this year. It is a decision that has driven the sports world mad.
The immediate responses to McCaffrey’s announcement on Twitter show the mind-set of some average-fan types who clearly feel as if McCaffrey owes them something. A sampling of the responses:
“So you quit on you teammates in your last game as a collegiate. This trend is sad and undermines everyone else who plays CFB.”
“Team used to mean something.
#KidsToday … Prob should use a new profile pic. One w/o the [Stanford] uni. Maybe one with you turning your back of the team?”
“It was only a matter of time before Millenial thinking entered sports. Team won’t be first anymore.”
“Will you hold out of week 17 in a handful of years with free agency pending, too?”
“Then give back your scholarship money and let someone who is paying their way have it.”
“Wow, I guess the young generation never heard the expression ‘finish what you started.'”
“This would be a red flag for me if I was looking to draft a guy and pay him millions of $’s!”
To be fair, McCaffrey did receive support on Twitter as well, and these are all just some knuckleheads on their phones, right?
Well, no, not quite.
Rookie sensation Ezekiel Elliott criticized the decisions of McCaffrey and Fournette.
Hall of Fame candidate Eddie George, who made millions of dollars as an NFL running back, said he understood the decision but that he personally does not believe in skipping a game:
“What are you playing the game for? Are you playing for money? If it is, and that’s your motive, that’s fine. But if you’re playing for the greatness of the game, you want to play as many times as you can understanding the repercussions of playing the game of football anyway. … I’ve seen guys that love to play and would play for free. My hand is up. I would play the game for free.”
Surely, we can expect George to cut a check to reimburse the Tennessee Titans franchise for those years of playing football any time now.
There’s also this tough guy NFL executive (who would never publicly put his name to such a comment):
ESPN’s Danny Kanell said, “I hate it … but I understand it. It’s a selfish decision. But with the money that’s at stake for all these players now, I understand why they would do it.”
Kanell was a bit more expressive on Twitter:
Even Jaylon Smith — who suffered an injury playing in a bowl game for Notre Dame last year and consequently fell in the draft, thus costing himself millions of guaranteed dollars — couldn’t take McCaffrey’s and Fournette’s side.
Smith did not and will not play a single game in his rookie season, thus making the challenge of earning a second lucrative contract in the NFL that much more difficult.
CBS Sports Radio’s Doug Gottlieb offered some strong opinions on the matter, too:
ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit, as well:
You get the point. Again, the criticism is not unanimous; many people support the decision. And some people, like Ezekiel Elliott, later shifted their views a bit. But let’s address this.
All of these people — many of whom are paid money to talk about the very athletes who are not paid money — fail to properly recognize the millions upon millions of dollars that are made by so many men wearing suits. This money is made regardless of whether or not Christian McCaffrey goes on to have a successful professional career or goes on to break his leg in the freaking Hyundai Sun Bowl.
These are people who fail to recognize that such decisions don’t stand to threaten college athletics going forward. People who don’t understand how this type of national conversation needs to become more common in order to effect change that will make life better and slightly more fair for college athletes in this country.
People who struggle to understand the inequity in football — not just in college, but in the NFL, too. The NCAA treats players like literal pawns, under the guise of scholarship, as if that’s a commensurate fee to offset the millions made by coaches, commissioners, ADs, TV network executives, media members, merchandise companies, and so many more people whose biggest risk at work is sipping a coffee before it reaches an acceptable temperature or springing a leak from their Mont Blanc pen and ruining their designer dress shirt. The NFL doesn’t guarantee contracts. You can work your entire life to make the league, only to break your leg at practice. You might never be the same, and your team can cut you before morning. Thanks for playing.
The cold, hard reality is this: The average signing bonus of the top-10 picks last year was roughly $13.75 million. The average signing bonus from picks 10-20 was $6.61 million. The average signing bonus of the final 11 picks of the first round was $5 million. To the second round and beyond, the money drops — significantly.
Elliott himself was drafted fifth overall, earning a $16.35 million signing bonus. Considering he’s been such a success in the NFL, it’s a near-guarantee that other teams try to emulate the Cowboys’ success and take a running back higher than they might have in recent years. And surely, if Fournette or McCaffrey were to suffer an injury in their meaningless corporate outing disguised as some sort of postseason game, they would quite obviously drop in the draft and thus limit their earning power — a power that few young men ever get to wield. The window to earn this money can be incredibly short, and if your career ends early due to injury? Lucky you! It’s time to fight your former employer — an employer that made billions compared to your millions,mind you — to cover your health care costs. The fact is, even some of the most talented collegiate players in the country don’t end up getting a second contract in the NFL.
This is the reality of football. As such, football players don’t live in the fantasy land where bowl games mean everything — or anything, for that matter.
Christian McCaffrey owes nothing to Stanford. Nothing. He played 37 games (including the prestigious Foster Farms Bowl) for the Cardinal, ran the ball more than 600 times, caught the ball 100 times, returned nearly 100 kicks and punts, sold countless tickets, kept the program relevant, and in doing so helped recruit the next generation of recruits to keep the money-making machine rolling along. He ran for 172 yards in the Rose Bowl last year. The Pac-12 made an extra $6 million for that game. McCaffrey didn’t get a dollar. Head coach David Shaw makes a reported $4 million per year. McCaffrey got free tuition.
You really don’t see the problem?
A bowl game is a corporate event. The sponsor makes money. The schools make money. The conference makes money. The networks make money. The venue makes money. The scalpers and the guys hawking bootleg T-shirts in the parking lot make money. The players get nothing except the “joy of the moment” and “one last moment to fight on the field with your brothers.”
If you’re OK with that situation, then surely you’ll be fine with your boss skipping out on your next paycheck. After all, you owe your company so much for giving you the opportunity to do the work that you love, so let’s not get bogged down by dollars. Right?
That’s not how the real world works, and whether a bunch of high school heroes understand it or not, Christian McCaffrey and Leonard Fournette proved that they most certainly understand it.
We should all hope that, moving forward, more college athletes understand that they’re not as powerless in the equation as the men in charge want them to believe.