Two of college football's star running backs, Stanford's Christian McCaffrey and LSU's Leonard Fournette, have said they won't play in their respective bowl games, decisions that have prompted some debate in the football world.
On Friday, Fournette, who is dealing with a nagging ankle injury, announced his decision to skip LSU's Citrus Bowl appearance against Louisville, saying, "It's best for my future." On Monday, McCaffrey tweeted he would to sit out Stanford's Sun Bowl game against North Carolina, calling it a "very tough decision."
The reasoning behind the players' decision to skip nonplayoff postseason games goes like this: As projected first-round draft picks, they've already proven their worth to NFL scouts over multiple seasons, so they don't have much to gain from playing in one more game — especially when that game won't give them a shot at the National Championship. They would, however, have plenty to lose. Playing in the bowl game would put them at risk of suffering potentially debilitating injuries that could cost them their careers or millions in NFL salaries.
This isn't idle worry.
In last season's Fiesta Bowl, Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith tore ligaments in his knee, and as a result he fell from a predicted top-five NFL draft pick to the second round before the Dallas Cowboys drafted him. This cost him millions of dollars in salary, and he still hasn't played a down of professional football.
Despite this, some college football fans and pundits maintain that skipping bowl games is selfish. Former Ohio State star and Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott tweeted his condemnation of football players who opt out of postseason games.
Elliott later qualified his criticism, saying it "makes sense" for Fournette and McCaffrey to sit out because they had been dealing with injuries.
Elliott isn't alone in his thinking, but in light of the growing push to pay college athletes in revenue sports, traditional attitudes about college football are shifting. And many people have come out in support of the athletes' decisions to sit out. Here are a few:
- McCaffrey's teammates. In announcing he would sit out, McCaffrey thanked his teammates for their "100% support." McCaffrey's teammate Trenton Irwin tweeted: "The whole team supports [McCaffrey] in everything and anything. [He's] been a leader to this team through the easy times and tough times."
- Fournette's teammates. Several of Fournette's teammates spoke out to support Fournette's decision. Wide receiver D.J. Chark said, "We support him. You know, that was my roommate when I came in. I've seen all the things he went through to get to where he's at. ... For him not playing in the bowl game, it's not unexpected. I feel like we're still going to be able to play LSU football but we're glad that he's going to be there supporting us and helping us out along the way."
- Fournette's coach. LSU head coach Ed Orgeron said, "We're grateful for all of the years Leonard has given us, all the great memories, all the great games." He also tweeted: "I want to wish all of the best to Leonard Fournette as he pursues his professional football career. He's a great member of The Tiger Family!"
- McCaffrey's coach. Stanford head coach David Shaw said: "We understand that this was a very difficult decision. For three years Christian has not only been a great player, but a great teammate as well. We wish him great success at the next level, as we continue our preparation for the Sun Bowl."
- Former South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore. Lattimore tweeted: Haven't had the pleasure of meeting [Fournette] or [McCaffrey] but by all accounts are great guys. They did their homework. Go get it!
- Sun Bowl Executive Director Bernie Olivas. After McCaffrey announced his decision, Olivas said, "Well we would be lying if we said we weren't a little disappointed, but at the same time, we are also understanding. He was hurt earlier this year so I am sure that weighed on his decision."
- North Carolina quarterback Mitch Trubisky. Trubisky, who will face Stanford in the Sun Bowl, said, "I think it's smart on their part, because it's different when you're a running back and you're taking all the shots. So for them to just prep for the NFL, I respect it because they're making the decision that's best for them in their career."
- A scouting director for an NFL team. Speaking to Fox Sports, the anonymous executive defended the players' decisions and said, "Put yourself in their shoes, an injury could change the course of the rest of their lives. We're not talking about a left guard here. We're talking about a skill (position) player who is a huge target. That's the reality of it."
A previous version of this story misspelled a reference to Bernie Olivas' last name as Olivias.