Blaming Christian McCaffrey and Leonard Fournette misses the mark

Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey runs past Rice linebacker Alex Lyons on a 23-yard touchdown reception Nov. 26.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

You can’t really blame Christian McCaffrey.

The Stanford do-everything star announced Monday that he will not accompany the team to the Sun Bowl, preferring to stay home, stay healthy and prepare for the 2017 NFL draft in the spring.

“Very tough decision,” he tweeted.

It’s the same conclusion Leonard Fournette reached over the weekend, opting not to join Louisiana State in the Citrus Bowl. The top running back said his sore ankle is at 85% and that further rest will be “best for my future.”

In an era when college sports have become so thoroughly professionalized, when networks pay billions of dollars for broadcast rights and coaches skip out before season’s end to take a more lucrative job elsewhere, who can deny players the right to act with future earnings in mind?

Too bad it’s sucking the life out of the game.

NCAA football doesn’t have the very best athletes — that claim belongs to the NFL. Instead, college thrives on pure passion, the idea that players love what they do.

It’s probably a myth. We know that. But it’s an appealing myth that used to require minimal suspension of disbelief.


Now we have to squint harder and harder to see the college ranks as anything more than a minor league for the pros. Where’s the allure in that? Especially this season, when the NFL has been so bloodless and dull.

If anything, McCaffrey and Fournette have proven themselves to be capable student-athletes by learning from the system in which they operate.

Schools, conferences and networks did not flood the postseason with 42 games because of their hunger for football. They created a bloated bowl system to increase television content, ticket sales and, ultimately, revenue.

Not that a few more bowl games are necessarily a bad thing.

Some fans can’t get enough college action around the holidays, even if it means watching Appalachian State outlast Toledo in the Camellia Bowl.

And lots of small programs across the nation have no realistic shot at a New Year’s Day game. Their players are thrilled to get an invitation from the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl or the Poinsettia Bowl.

But when teams with records of .500 or worse become commonplace in the postseason, the sport has veered a little further off-track.

And when coaches such as Tom Herman, who recently left Houston for his “dream” job at Texas, bolt before their team’s bowl game, the priorities are clear.

Maybe the best hope resides with the rank-and-file. Less than 2% of players will ultimately make pro rosters, according to statistics distributed by the NFL and NCAA. Much of the remaining 98% continue to play for reasons that fit more closely with a romantic image.

They love football. They might love their team, too. They want to get a college education.

As for the elite few at the top, college football will undoubtedly become more and more of a business.

In the short term, we don’t get another chance to watch McCaffrey, who rushed for 204 yards in Stanford’s regular-season finale against Rice. We’ll miss Fournette who, even at less than full strength, can be one of the most enthralling runners in the nation.

We can probably expect others to follow their lead in coming seasons. There is simply too much money at stake.