There are too many bowl games, and the College Football Playoff has significantly diminished their stature. That much is indisputable.
But despite a lot of media chatter, bowl games are not “meaningless” or “bogus,” and they’re not “populated by dubious figures,” as alleged earlier this week in a San Francisco Chronicle column.
Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey’s decision not to play in the Sun Bowl wasn’t an indictment of the bowl system. It was based on his desire to put himself in the best possible position for the NFL Draft and, most likely, avoid the risk of injury. That was it, pure and simple.
If Stanford were heading for a playoff game, I’m quite sure McCaffrey would’ve played. But he and his family determined that the Sun Bowl wasn’t worth the risk. Ironically, McCaffrey had his coming out party in a bowl game—the 2014 Foster Farms Bowl at Levi’s Stadium. But what if quarterback Kevin Hogan and offensive tackle Andrus Peat (an NFL first-round pick) had opted out of that game to begin their draft preparations? How might that have affected his performance?
I think McCaffrey’s decision was unfortunate. That’s easy for me to say, given that I’m not eyeing a lucrative pro career. But I think he’s letting down his teammates (none of whom, understandably, will criticize him publicly), his coaches (ditto), his fans (many of whom had purchased airline tickets, hotel rooms, rental cars, and game tickets to watch him play his final game in El Paso), and the good folks at the Sun Bowl.
The Sun Bowl is one of America’s oldest and most established postseason games. It was founded in 1935. Stanford has played in the game three times against three of the top programs in college football, and each game was meaningful and memorable.
In Bill Walsh’s first season, 1977, Stanford beat LSU, 24-14. In 1996, under Tyrone Willingham, Stanford shut out a Michigan State team coached by Nick Saban, 38-0. And in 2009, Jim Harbaugh’s first bowl game, Stanford played a courageous game against Oklahoma without injured quarterback Andrew Luck, losing 31-27.
Try to tell any of the players on those Stanford teams that the bowl game was meaningless or bogus. I was the Sports Information Director at Stanford in 1977, and I can tell you that Walsh and his players cherished that experience and reveled in that victory over a favored SEC team. Future NFL players James Lofton and Darrin Nelson were responsible for all three of Stanford’s touchdowns. And oh-by-the-way, Lofton was a first-round draft pick playing in his last college game.
Later, I served as the executive director of the bowl game played here in the Bay Area for 15 years, and I can assure you that the games were not “pointless” for the athletes who played in them. In the 2004 Emerald Bowl, for example, Navy capped one of the greatest seasons in school history with a win over New Mexico. Nearly 20,000 Navy fans made the trip West to support their team, including 4,000 Midshipmen. After the game, jubilant Navy players were yelling, chanting, and crying with joy in the locker room.
In 2011, about half the state of Nevada came to San Francisco to watch Colin Kaepernick lead his Wolf Pack team to a win over Boston College, capping a 13-1 season. The players carried Kaep off the field, and delirious Nevada fans stormed the gridiron at AT&T Park. Meaningless? I don’t think so.
As for the people involved, Bowl games are not “populated by dubious figures.” In fact, most of the people who run bowl games are volunteers from the local community. They give up their time during the holidays to host the competing teams, make sure the players have a great experience, and staff events that raise millions of dollars for local charities.
The local bowl that I was privileged to direct—known over the years as the Emerald, Kraft Fight Hunger and now Foster Farms Bowl—has donated over 400,000 meals to feed hungry families in the San Francisco area. The people on the host committee are some of the finest people I know.
Risk of injury, to be sure, is a valid consideration for any potential high draft pick. Yet at Stanford, both Jim Plunkett and Andrew Luck returned for their final seasons rather than turn pro, despite the risk of injury, and both were the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft.
Moreover, injuries can happen anywhere. This year, Minnesota Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was lost for the season due to an injury suffered in a non-contact drill. A few months ago, Cleveland Indians pitcher Trevor Bauer injured himself repairing a drone.
Finally, there is the issue of precedent. If Christian McCaffrey can decide not to play in one of the country’s oldest bowl games for fear of injury, what about a “meaningless” season-ending game against an over-matched Rice team? Once the trend starts, where does it end? When do you stop being a member of a team and start being a commodity?
In several of the bowl-bashing columns, the example of Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith was cited. Smith injured his knee in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl, saw his draft stock decline and missed the 2016 season. Earlier this week, after he saw his experience being used to support McCaffrey’s decision, Smith took to Twitter to issue his response. Here’s what he said, exactly as Tweeted:
“Honestly, With Everything I’ve been through, if I could go back to Jan. 1st I’d play again.”
That’s really all you need to know.