Josh Kendall

College athletes can be selfish without being wrong

Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey (5) will not play in a bowl game to prepare for his NFL career.
Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey (5) will not play in a bowl game to prepare for his NFL career. USA TODAY Sports

Zack Bailey is a Football Guy’s football guy. South Carolina’s sophomore left guard talks about football things like “physicality” and said this week, “I am here to dominate the person on the other side of the line.”

If he’s not a tough guy, you don’t want to meet a tough guy, and here’s what he has to say about Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffery: “This is a business, and they have to make a business decision. We are a team of brothers, but we all understand that kind of stuff.”

The most important word in there is “business,” but first the background. Fournette and McCaffery are two of college football’s best running backs. Or, at least, they were. Both decided to skip their team’s bowl games in order to focus prepare for the NFL Draft.

Fournette’s decision, which came Friday, was no great surprise. He’s been in and out of the lineup most of the season because of injury.

McCaffery’s decision, which was announced Monday, came out of the blue. It set off a predictable response from the Keyboard Cowboys of social media.

“Legends turning in the grave. You gonna regret giving up. What a shame!” an account titled ESPN_UNFILTERED tweeted.

There was plenty more of that – decrying the selfishness of players putting themselves before the team. Bailey offered the most eloquent counterpoint to that argument.

“What would happen if you were one of them and you went to the bowl game and you tore your leg up or something like that?” he asked. “That’s your career that you’re losing. I don’t blame them at all. That’s a decision that you make that affects the rest of your life.”

Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith knows that well. He suffered a devastating knee injury in last year’s Fiesta Bowl – a much higher-profile game than the Sun Bowl that was skipped by McCaffery or the Citrus Bowl skipped by Fournette – that cost him almost $20 million due to his lost NFL Draft position, not to mention at least one year of football as he continues to rehab with the Dallas Cowboys.

Marcus Lattimore, who everyone in Columbia would point to as a living example of “the old college try,” weighed in on the debate on Twitter: “Haven’t had the pleasure of meeting @_fournette or @CMccaffrey5 but by all accounts are great guys. They did their homework. Go get it!”

Lattimore was the epitome of a team-first guy, but he also knows better than most what the game can take away from a player. The knee injury he suffered against Tennessee essentially ended his hopes of a productive professional career.

Bailey will have a professional future to think about one day. He’s 6-foot-6, 315 pounds and already the Gamecocks best offensive linemen. If South Carolina is playing a random December bowl game “it’s a possibility,” he would skip the game, he said.

“It would depend,” he said. “I would have to think about it.”

If Bailey does skip a bowl game in two seasons, it might be that nobody notices since he is, in fact, a guard. UCLA guard Alex Redmond skipped the Foster Farms Bowl last year to prepare for the NFL Draft. (He was undrafted free agent and is now on the Cincinnati Bengals practice squad.) Or it might be that nobody notices because it’s commonplace by then.

The “business” Bailey referenced has been going on all around the players for years. Coaches frequently leave their teams for greener pastures before the bowl game. South Carolina’s opponent in the Dec. 29 Birmingham Bowl, South Florida, will be playing under interim coach T.J. Weist because Willie Taggart left to take the Oregon job and piles of money.

Where was the chorus calling Taggart a quitter? How is it different for a coach or administrator to improve their personal position than a football player? It isn’t.

College athletes, specifically college football players, are in a moment of awakening, realizing the power they have to influence their futures and that of their teams. That might not be a good thing for fans who never want college football to change, but it’s a good thing for the players who for too long have propped up this entire enterprise without enough of a voice in how it operates.

Jadeveon Clowney could be remembered as the harbinger of this phenomenon. He was the first collegiate player in recent memory to widely hear the suggestion that he would be better off skipping his entire final season of eligibility in order to safeguard his professional future. Fournette heard those same rumblings before this season. So far, nobody has skipped a season, but until this month, we had never seen two high-profile stars skip a bowl game either.

The idea of placing your self-interests above that of your team in certain situations is no longer a hypothetical. It’s now out in the open, and it’s not that far a mental leap to go from skipping a bowl game to skipping an entire season. We’re just talking about a matter of scale now.

A logical next step in this progression: A player leaves a team as soon as his team is eliminated from championship contention.

The Keyboard Cowboys are going to be really hot about that.