If the West Virginia Mountaineers are going to win their Camping World Bowl matchup with no. 17 Syracuse, they’ll have to do it without two key offensive starters: quarterback Will Grier and tackle Yodny Cajuste. Grier and Cajuste have both announced that they’ll sit out the Mountaineers’ bowl game to prepare for the NFL draft. Neither announcement was particularly shocking or controversial, and when a handful of other prospects—Houston’s Ed Oliver, South Carolina’s Deebo Samuel, LSU’s Greedy Williams, just to name a few—did the same, it felt routine.
Imagine how much that paragraph would shock a college football fan from three years ago, and not just because Syracuse is ranked now.
In 2016, running backs Christian McCaffrey and Leonard Fournette both skipped their teams’ bowl games to prepare for the draft. McCaffrey and Fournette were both top prospects at running back, one of the most dangerous positions in football—in fact, both had missed time due to injury earlier that year. If they had gotten hurt again, the financial consequences would have been disastrous: For an NFL rookie, the difference between being picked in the top 10 and falling to even the second round is more than $10 million. The year before, Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith learned that lesson firsthand when he suffered a devastating knee injury in the Fiesta Bowl and dropped out of the first round of the draft. If anyone was going to skip bowl season, it’d be McCaffrey and Fournette, who had relatively little to gain from playing and a great deal to lose.
Criticism for Fournette and McCaffrey was noisy, if not exactly universal. But it turns out that while Fournette and McCaffrey angered a few old-school college football types (Kirk Herbstreit capitalized both “LOVING” and “GAME” in a tweet on the issue), NFL GMs were unfazed. Fournette went fourth in the draft and McCaffrey went eighth.
Skipping a bowl game turned out to be like running a four-minute mile or climbing Half Dome—a seemingly unthinkable feat that soon became commonplace once someone proved it could be done. College football has no shortage of phenomena that quickly became commonplace after one pioneer’s proof of concept, from gaudy alternate uniforms to the Air Raid to conference-owned media outlets. But even in a sport that’s quick to copy successful enterprises, skipping bowl games has become normalized with shocking speed.
ESPN has a running list of players who are skipping their bowl game this year, and even the holdouts among fans and media seem to have come to accept that this is going to happen, even if they don’t necessarily like it. While Fournette and McCaffrey turned out to be top-10 picks, we’re now seeing potential second-day selections opt out of that one last celebratory go-around with their college teams. And that’s all they’re missing—nobody has opted out of the playoffs. At least so far. Ohio State edge rusher Nick Bosa left school in October after suffering an abdominal injury. When Bosa made his decision, it was possible, though not certain, that the Buckeyes would make the playoff and possible, though not certain, that he’d be healthy enough to contribute if they did. It might never become commonplace for players to skip the playoff, but someone will probably do so in the future.
It’s only natural that players are exerting greater agency over their careers as time goes on, and that the public is growing more sympathetic. That fits with other trends in college sports—through the 2010s, the idea of paying college athletes has become more popular over time. For a time in 2013, it was fashionable to suggest that Jadeveon Clowney, the top prospect in his high school recruiting class and eventual no. 1 overall NFL draft pick, should sit out his entire junior year to avoid injury. A year later, UConn guard Shabazz Napier made national headlines when he told reporters he couldn’t afford food shortly after winning the NCAA title. And as March Madness and the College Football Playoff have brought in more and more TV revenue, the fact that athletes don’t get a cut of that windfall has become harder and harder to ignore. The fans who follow the sport and the reporters who cover it are also changing. Asked about Grier and Cajuste’s absence from the Camping World Bowl in a mailbag column, The Athletic’s Stewart Mandel drew attention to a generational divide: While older people (and coaches) viewed skipping a bowl game as quitting on a team, younger people (including current players) don’t buy into that worldview. “They know it’s a business, and they don’t begrudge the star quarterback for making a business decision,” Mandel wrote. “After all, they see their coaches make similar decisions all the time.”
Until McCaffrey and Fournette ended their college careers on their own timeline, all of those considerations were just theoretical. Leaving the team before the end of the season invited criticism from people who expected players to stick around through New Year’s, but it also forced them to explain why players should live under that expectation.
It turns out coming up with a good reason is pretty tough. Come bowl season, most college players are underclassmen who expect to return to school next year or seniors who can be labeled with one or both of the following clichés: “playing for love of the game,” and “going pro in something other than sports.” Only a few draft prospects have the kind of overpowering incentive to avoid injury that Grier, Cajuste, Bosa, and the rest have.
That injury risk is very real. Every week, we see players carted off the field with season-ending injuries. That’s true even in bowl games—in addition to Smith’s Fiesta Bowl disaster, Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson tore his ACL in last year’s Music City Bowl—and anyone who says that the injury risk is less in bowl games than regular-season games is tacitly acknowledging that these games don’t mean as much, in which case, who cares if Grier sits out?
Who, indeed? By and large, the players don’t. Coaches probably find the practice inconvenient, but they seem to understand it. Judging by McCaffrey and Fournette’s draft position relative to Smith’s, neither do NFL GMs—or if they do, sitting out a game to avoid injury is less of a red flag than suffering nerve damage.
If there’s no self-interested reason for players to play through bowl season, that leaves norms and tradition. As players become more and more aware of who does the work, who gets the benefits, and who controls the levers of power, those arguments don’t work too well anymore. Nor should they. McCaffrey and Fournette forced college football players to examine why they’re willing to work under the current system. A handful of players decided that they’re not, once they realized they had the choice. Given how quickly the players have hammered this toehold of agency into football’s institutional structure, and which direction public opinion is headed on the issue, the NCAA would be wise to make small concessions before it suffers large defeats.