College Football Bowl Games: To Play or Not To Play?

Opposing NFL defenses haven’t been the only ones noticing the impact of Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey this year. The rookie NFL running backs are also having an impact on this year’s college football bowl games and the upcoming 2018 NFL Draft. Fournette and McCaffrey’s decision to skip their teams’ bowl games last December and not risk injury that would hurt their draft status has stirred up quite the debate again this year. Have their decisions created a precedent for future draft prospects?

Before Fournette and McCaffrey, the last time college football bowl participation came into hot debate was when Willis McGahee suffered a knee injury in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl National Championship. Before the injury, the former Miami standout was considered a lock to be a Top-5 draft pick in the upcoming draft.  After the injury, McGahee slid to the 23rd pick. The number 1 pick in the draft, Carson Palmer, went on to sign his rookie contract worth about $49 million. Terrance Newman, the 5th pick in the draft, signed his contract for $33 million. McGahee’s contract was for $15.5 million – meaning the injury likely cost him at least $20 million.

Fournette, the former LSU star, chose to sit out his team’s Citrus Bowl game last year after dealing with injuries all year and missing 5 games. McCaffrey, the former Stanford stud, chose to sit out the Sun Bowl after also dealing with injuries for the majority of the year and missing one game. Both were projected to be top first round picks in the upcoming draft and decided the risks of injury greatly outweighed the rewards of playing. Neither’s team was playing in the College Football Playoff or a premiere bowl game. If they were, would this have changed their decisions? Will we see a premiere player for a team in the College Football Playoff choose to skip it one day? Fournette and McCaffrey, the 4th and 8th picks in the 2017 NFL Draft, signed contracts for roughly $45 million and $28 million, respectively. Had they suffered a McGahee-like injury and slid to the 23rd pick of the draft, their contracts would have dipped to around $16.5 million – a significant loss.

Draft prospects have long taken out insurance policies to protect them from the risk of these career-altering injuries. McGahee took out a $2.5 million insurance policy before the National Championship that would’ve paid out if he were to never play football again. Fortunately, he was able to recover from the injury and play again but never to the same level. Former Michigan tight end Jake Butt suffered an injury in his team’s 2016 bowl game and slid from a projected 2nd or 3rd round pick before injury to the 5th round after injury. Luckily for him, he was able to collect over $500,000 on a loss-of-value insurance policy. Did this fully compensate him for the money he lost in his rookie contract? Have Fournette and McCaffrey taken the next step in not playing in the bowl games at all?

It’s hard to argue against the decisions being made by athletes like Fournette and McCaffrey when looking at the financial numbers. Sure, there are the arguments of a player’s loyalty to a team or school, desire to play, and willingness to compete, but it’s hard to fault college football players who are about to be professional athletes for looking out for their own future financial interest—especially when their own colleges and universities along with NCAA are profiting significantly from them. It appears Fournette and McCaffrey have started a precedent and will leave a lasting impact at the collegiate level beyond just their play on the field. The only question that remains: who will be the next high-profile star to skip a bowl game?