Lowell Cohn: Christian McCaffrey’s decision is a Sun Bowl of confusion

Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey, right, runs past Rice linebacker Emmanuel Ellerbee on rushing touchdown during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 26, 2016, in Stanford, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)


Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey is skipping the Sun Bowl — running out on his teammates. This is a very big deal. It’s also extremely complicated. I am in the business of telling you my opinion, of being on one side or the other. Of expressing clarity. In the case of McCaffrey I’m not at all clear. I admit that, sadly,

So, instead of giving you a McCaffrey pro and con, here’s a con and pro on him. I start with the con because every ounce of my being objects to what he’s doing. But I’m not sure I believe what I feel.

McCaffrey should play against the University of North Carolina in the Sun Bowl in El Paso on Dec. 30 because he owes one more game to his teammates. Football is the ultimate team game. Yes, I know that’s a cliché, but it’s true.

McCaffrey is a great college running back. I have no idea how he’ll perform in the NFL. One reason he was great was his offensive line and the tight ends and the wide receivers who ran routes taking defenders away from him. The full schmear.

McCaffrey did not play in isolation. He excelled as part of a team that helped him look good, that helped him potentially become a very rich young man in the NFL. He is putting his “me” before the “we” of his Stanford group. And that is selfish and shortsighted and, if I were his teammate, I might feel sold out.

Why sold out? Because McCaffrey made a commitment to play all games with us. Not all but one. Because we all worked to play in this game, and he says we don’t matter to him anymore. And, really, we don’t matter. The only thing that matters is his personal stock.

I can tell you Andrew Luck didn’t ditch the Cardinal, played in the Fiesta Bowl his final season. Didn’t worry about injury. You play football, you could get injured. That’s how it works. You’re afraid of injury, take up badminton.

Anyway, that’s how I feel about McCaffrey and I know I am old and old-fashioned, so please bear with me because running neck and neck with my feeling of moral disapproval for McCaffrey is the feeling he is doing precisely the correct thing in walking away from the Sun Bowl.

Am I confused or what?

For starters, the downside of playing in the Sun Bowl for him is bigger than the upside. By far. He could get seriously hurt and risk his NFL career and lose millions of dollars. It has happened to other college players. Notre Dame’s Jaylon Smith was supposed to be a top-five draft pick but he hurt his knee in last year’s Fiesta Bowl, fell to Round 2 where Dallas took him. He did not play this season.

If a young man sees college ball as a minor league for the NFL, he should not play in a bowl game, if he chooses not to. Of course, I don’t believe colleges are — or should be — a minor-league for a professional sport, but college athletes often have a different view. McCaffrey sure does.

He’s not the only one. LSU running back Leonard Fournette decided not to play in the Citrus Bowl, although he says his ankle hurts. Maybe.

Players aren’t the only ones skipping bowls. Coaches do it, too. Tom Herman left Houston in the lurch for the Las Vegas Bowl when he took the University of Texas job. Another guy, Major Applewhite, had to coach and he lost to San Diego State 34-10.

I can imagine a college player looks at a sellout like Herman and wonders why he should risk so much in a bowl game. And who could blame the college player?

College football is entirely corrupt. I want to state that right here. I disapprove of college football. The schools and conferences make millions from the work of indentured servants — the student athletes.

And then there are all those bowl games, way too many of them, most of them phony. The games — all 41 of them — are about making money. So much greed on so-called pristine college campuses. You want to throw up.

So, sure, a clear-thinking football player like, say, McCaffrey could reasonably ask himself why he should earn even more dough for Stanford. Ask himself why he should earn even more dough for the Pac-12, which used to be a nice little conference — Pac-8, anyone? — but is now a money machine.

It’s right for players to skip crummy bowl games. What in the world is the Sun Bowl? Do you know or care who won it last time? And it’s not even the worst bowl game. If enough marquee players skip ridiculous, meaningless bowls, maybe the whole bloated bowl system will collapse of its own horrible weight and we’ll be left with a few bowl games that actually mean something.

I’m preaching here. Forgive me.

Back to McCaffrey. He was on the horns of a dilemma. His options were good or bad, depending on how you look at them. By skipping the Sun Bowl he was neither wrong nor right. He made the best decision for him.

I will leave you with this. What if a college team were playing for the national championship? Being hypothetical here. What if the star running back — the essential running back — said he would skip the championship game because he was scared of getting hurt, of ruining his chances in the NFL draft?

Would you try to see things from his point of view? Would you applaud his decision? How would you feel in the deepest recesses of your heart?

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