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Fournette, McCaffrey, and the Cavs

Three athletes have made headlines in the last week by not playing sports, highlighting what remains of the difference between college and pro sports.

NCAA Football: Alabama at Louisiana State Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Christian McCaffrey and Leonard Fournette, two of the best running backs in college football and two guys likely to be selected early in the 2017 NFL Draft, have both announced they will skip their bowl games. McCaffrey’s Stanford Cardinal entered the season with national title aspirations but will play in the Sun Bowl. Fournette’s LSU Tigers entered the season with national title aspirations but will play in the Citrus Bowl.

An even better-known athlete, and two of his teammates, also made headlines last week by skipping a game. LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love all stayed in Cleveland as the Cavaliers traveled to Memphis to play the Grizzlies (apparently a coach’s decision).

All three decisions have spurred the requisite Hot Takes both from people who get paid for such Takes and from random fans on Twitter. The argument with regard to the two RBs goes something like this: these universities have given them room & board, free education, every amenity an athlete could ever want, and legions of adoring fans. Their teammates have sacrificed alongside them and it’s unacceptable that they would bail on said teammates and skip the final games of their college careers to selfishly look toward the NFL instead.

I say that’s nonsense, but that may make me sound like a hypocrite since I buy the issues with the Three Cavaliers skipping the game in Memphis. I understand it’s a long season in the NBA and that everyone needs days off. Especially early in the season, and especially against a non-conference opponent. And especially for a player like LeBron who, with 199 Playoff games under his belt, has the equivalent of two and a half extra season of wear and tear on his body.

But professional athletes are extremely well compensated entertainers. NBA championships matter more than local rec-league titles only because millions of people aside from the participants care about them. Those people show they care with their time and money. And in Memphis—which has exactly one major-league sports team —there are three games that drive season-ticket sales: the one visit from the Cavs and the two from the Warriors.

The Cavs, like every NBA team, have 41 home games. Again, I understand the coach Tyronn Lue was trying to save his Big Three not only minutes, but also travel time. But that concern, to me, could be just as easily dealt with by leaving one of the three home for three separate road trips. If you want to sit all three, do it at home where the fans get to see those guys play 40 more times plus the Playoffs. Ultimately, all that money the players and coaches make in pro sports is derived from fans watching on TV and buying tickets. It’s entertainment, and Memphis fans paid full price to see the understudies.

It’s different for the college guys. Say what you will about the value of a free education and the other perks college athletes get; no matter how you slice it, they receive a far smaller share of the revenue pie than their professional counterparts. So while it’s valid to note that the Memphis fans’ dollars are part of the reason NBA stars get to be millionaires, you can’t say the same for fan money as it relates to college players.

It’s also important to note that Fournette and McCaffrey aren’t, say, skipping College Football Playoff games to prepare for the draft. Both of them played hard for their schools, set records, and electrified fans until the very last non-exhibition game of their careers. But aside from the CFP games, bowl games really are just exhibitions.

In fact, there’s a good argument that if anything, Fournette and McCaffrey are helping their college teams. As Mack Brown noted on numerous occasions, a non-championship bowl game is best understood as the first game of the next season. The Citrus Bowl is a chance for LSU to run its offense with Derrius Guice as the unquestioned feature back, without the specter of Fournette in the background. For Stanford, the Sun Bowl is an opportunity to experiment with ways to move the football without the guy who’s been responsible for over half their offensive production the last two seasons. Isn’t it better to get a sense for that in a game that doesn’t count than the 2017 regular season?

Fournette, in particular, deserves none of the silliness being directed his way. He has been fighting an ankle injury all year and it continues to nag him. Unlike McCaffrey, whose father had a successful NFL career of his own, Fournette does not come from particularly solid economic circumstances. Finally, Fournette has a young daughter for whom he must provide. Frankly, sitting out an exhibition game to heal and rest shouldn’t even be a difficult choice.

Say you were a college student, pre-med major. You have finished your last final and will be an excellent candidate for many top medical schools. A professor approaches you about an optional group project: if you do well on the project, you will be in the exact same position as you are in now. If the project goes poorly, you will hurt your chances of admission to medical school—and your group mates will get no real benefit either way. In what universe would you accept the project? That, essentially, is the choice facing these guys.

Yes, the fans in Orlando and El Paso will be deprived of seeing superstars much as the Memphis fans were last week. But unlike the Cavs’ Big Three, Fournette and McCaffrey don’t owe their livelihoods to those fans. Their livelihoods instead depend on staying healthy for the next five months. College football fans should thank them for the memories, be excited to see them play at the next level, and leave them the hell alone.