On the eve of the College Football Playoff Championship game I want to explore the topic of players sitting out of bowl games a little further. For all intents and purposes we’ll use 2016 as the unofficial start of this trend among college football players. If you recall, Stanford Running back Christian McCaffrey and LSU RB Leonard Fournette both decided to forego their Bowl games to prepare for the NFL draft. McCaffrey sat out of Stanford’s Sun Bowl game while Fournette sat out of LSU’s appearance in the Citrus Bowl. This definitely brought up a lot of clatter about whether or not football players should sit out of the bowl games, but for these two guys the decision was easy. That season, Fournette had been dealing with a bum ankle all year and had missed a few games as a result. McCaffrey was also banged up that season. He was hurt against Washington State, sat out against Notre Dame, and was limited in action during the matchup against Colorado.
Fournette was drafted fourth overall to the Jacksonville Jaguars and McCaffrey was drafted eighth overall to the Carolina Panthers in the 2017 draft. These were two Top Ten picks in the NFL draft, so any arguments against these players’ decisions should be mute. These two guys treated it like a business decision because after all, college football is big business.
With that said, it still makes zero sense to me why the guys who are directly responsible for filling up college football stadiums across the country each week aren’t able to profit in this system, and I’m referring to the players. Universities and its college football coaches profit big time for reaching a bowl game and its very lucrative for them, but why do the players only receive a small gift? It makes no sense to me.
Let’s take a look at the bonuses and prizes that head coaches and their players are set to make for a Bowl appearance (and victory) shall we? Fresno State head coach Jeff Tedford received a $100,000 bonus when the Bulldogs won against Arizona State in the Mitsubishi Motors Las Vegas Bowl. His players received a gift suite, a collectible Las Vegas item, dad hat, beanie, fanny pack. Mark Stoops earned $250,000 for a Kentucky Wildcats victory over Penn State in the VRBO Citrus Bowl. He already received a similar amount for coaching Kentucky to 9 wins this season. For the Citrus Bowl appearance, players receive a $400 best buy gift card, fossil watch, and an Ogio backback with luggage tag. Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz will earn at least $125,000 if Iowa moves into the Top 25 of the AP poll at the end of the season. For the Outback Bowl appearance, the players received a Fossil Watch, Jostens ring, $125 Best Buy Gift card, and an Outback Steakhouse gift card, and hat. Nick Saban is set to earn a $200,000 bonus if his Bama team wins the CFP this season. For the Orange Bowl appearance, players received a gift suite, Tourneau watch, personalized Fathead of each student-athlete, sling bag. Clemson’s Dabo Swinney can earn an additional $200,000 if the Tigers win their CFP semifinal game against Notre Dame and then he would earn $250,000 more for winning the national championship.
These are just some of the figures that I could find, but you get the idea about how much money these coaches can earn for a bowl appearance and subsequent victory. Coaches have every interest to ensure their players are ready to compete and win in their bowl games. So I apologize for saying in the past that bowl games, for the most part are meaningless, because they aren’t. To the casual college football fan, there may be little interest in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl, or the Valero Alamo Bowl, or even the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl, but to universities and college football coaches these games are more important than regular season games. These bowl games mean everything because a victory equates to a coach pulling in some buku bucks!
However, for college football players the reward is not greater than the risk of injury associated with the additional winter practices and the extra game to the season. We’ve seen players who have been negatively affected in the NFL draft as a result of playing and getting hurt in their respective bowl games. Former Notre Dame Linebacker Jaylon Smith and Former Tight End Jake Butt are prime examples. Smith tore his ACL and LCL in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl and lost millions as his draft stock plummeted out of the Top 10 to pick number 34 in the draft. Jake Butt didn’t hear his name called until the 5th round in the 2017 draft. He was highly regarded as one of the best tight ends in all of college football that season but wound up being a late pick due him tearing his ACL in the Orange Bowl. As a college football fan, I would enjoy seeing my favorite players compete one last time in their school’s bowl game, but as I take a step back and look at the bigger picture for these athletes I completely understand why they may choose to forego playing in their bowl game. And I think for the most part, educated college football fans understand the business decision behind sitting out as well. The NCAA is flawed and you can be against the corporation but still be a college football fan. I am.
I am happy because it seems as if we are finally seeing players use their rights to protect their own interests. In 2017, even more players made the conscious business decision to sit out of their bowl games. Collectively, these ten players would go on to sign contracts, which includes signing bonuses, worth more than $185 million. This season the number of players sitting out of the Bowl games, by my count, is close to 30. And while I respect the players’ decisions, I think there does need to be some guidance on when a player needs to make his decision.
As I mentioned, college football is big business, between $60-$70 billion is illegally wagered on college football each year according to CNBC and for me personally, I am currently involved in a college bowl game pick-em which has a small prize attached for whoever wins the tournament. Selections were due before the start of the first game, which this season was the Celebration Bowl on December 15th. I feel like I am very knowledgeable about the teams and know who would be favored in certain matchups, but this season the challenge was trying to guess which athletes are going to decide to sit out of their games. Knowing the better matchups is one thing but knowing which playmakers are going to sit out really make the difference when it comes to selecting winners. By December 14th, 17 players had confirmed that they were sitting out. After December 15th, at least 6 more players announced they were sitting out and this list is only current through the 28th of December. It makes it difficult for folks who bet on the game to make their selections if they have no idea when a player will announce that they are sitting out. The NCAA and universities have a strong interest in having its best players suit up for these games because they lose out on potential revenue dollars from fans deciding to forego their team’s bowl game experience, potential sponsors pulling out, or lost TV deals when these players decide to sit out. From a fan’s perspective, these smaller bowl games have lost its luster. However, right now the focus is on the recently formed college football playoff system and it seems as if every year there’s more and more talk about expanding the field. I am very curious about if we’d ever see college football players deciding to sit out of the College Football playoffs? For the teams that make it to the CFP championship game, you’re talking about the addition of 2 more games to a season that already extends to 13 games, for those teams that made it to their respective conference championship games.
What if we saw a player like Kyler Murray, or even Tua Tagovalioa decide to forego these games? That wouldn’t seem likely, right? Well, I think there are situations out there in college football where the perceived team goal doesn’t align with an individual’s goals. In a situation like Kyler’s, he’s already guaranteed millions in the MLB and may also have a future in the NFL if he so chooses to entertain that notion. How much would he be risking by furthering his college career by a game, or two? What would the media, NFL scouts, and college football fans think about players sitting out if we ever saw this happen for CFP games? We don’t have a precedence for players willingly sitting out of the marquee games and I think if this happened a player’s social stock would take a hit. He would be labeled selfish and probably would receive some serious threats. He is selfish for sitting out despite the fact that he may have his families’ interest in mind by sitting out, guaranteeing he is healthy for a professional career someday. The player may be forced in a situation that he doesn’t want to be in.
Some friends have suggested that maybe this goes away if players get paid which makes me think a players union could have some benefit for not only the players, but for universities as well. We already know that college football is over a billion dollar industry so why not let the players unionize and make money? This could be a win-win because the universities and the NCAA don’t lose out on the dollars lost when players decide to sit out. I also think that establishing a union would be beneficial because if players still decide to forego their college bowl games, the NCAA and the union could come to an agreement on when players need to officially declare themselves out for that game. There definitely needs to be some established rules set-up for how this process will work for players who decide to skip their bowl games. It’s not fair to the college football fans who spend thousands of dollars to go to a bowl game just to find out a few hours before kickoff that their favorite player has decided to sit out. As was the case with Temple’s matchup against Duke in the Independence Bowl in December where an announcement was made prior to kickoff that a couple key players for Temple had decided to sit-out. I’m not saying that a union or paying the players would resolve the issue completely, but I think it would certainly help to slow this trend down. For an organization committed to making millions of dollars on the backs of its student-athletes, I would think the NCAA would want to entertain this idea. I’m very curious to see how college football system evolves from this. There’s a great opportunity here to finally do what’s right for the college football players.