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Murph: McCaffrey toeing dangerous line by not playing Sun Bowl

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These days, the older generation derisively calls the new generation the “participation trophy era”, mocking today’s kids who get a trophy for just participating in sports.

And then Christian McCaffrey, Stanford’s star running back, won’t even participate.

No trophy for Christian!

The news that McCaffrey, arguably the greatest all-around football player in Stanford history (apologies to Ernie Nevers, Jim Plunkett, John Elway and Andrew Luck), will elect to sit out the Dec. 30 Sun Bowl to “begin my draft prep immediately” clanged in the ears of many sports fans this week.

To the kid who defined effort and intensity on the Stanford gridiron, many are saying: Say what?

The ensuing debate has cleaved the sports nation.

On one side of the room are those who defend McCaffrey, who decry a system rotten with meaningless bowls, where coaches make all the money and college athletes risk their physical beings for no compensation other than a scholarship.

On the other side of the room are those who criticize McCaffrey, noting that he’s quitting on his team before one last game together, leaving the team before finishing the journey, chucking aside more weeks of practice with his compadres and brothers in arms so he can play it safe and keep his body intact for April’s NFL Draft.

I’m with the second group.

What McCaffrey has done here is shine a light on the very essence of being on a team, on the very concept of playing a sport and completing a task of joy and brotherhood.

For the record, count me in favor of being on a team, and count me in favor of playing a sport, and count me in favor of completing a task of joy and brotherhood.

Otherwise, what is the meaning of life?

Sorry. Got my French philosopher hat on there for a second. I’ll take it off.

Sure, it’s a risk to play in the Sun Bowl. It was also a risk to play in Stanford’s last game against Rice, which had no bearing on the Cardinal’s conference hopes. It was also a risk to play against Cal in the Big Game, when it was already known Stanford couldn’t win the Pac-12 North.

Where do we draw the line on what is a meaningful game, and what isn’t? And what is a meaningful bowl game, and what isn’t? Neither Penn State nor USC has a chance at the national championship game, so should their draft-eligible players sit out the Rose Bowl to “begin draft prep immediately”? And if the answer is that the Rose Bowl is more meaningful than the Sun Bowl, where is that arbitrary line drawn?

Heck, the Sun Bowl’s actually a pretty good bowl. North Carolina’s quarterback, Mitch Trubisky, is a potential first-round pick in the NFL Draft. By McCaffrey’s logic, Trubisky should pack it in and meet McCaffrey at a Scottsdale gym for Pilates. A game? To end their college careers with one last win? One last bonding experience? One last climb atop the mountain with their fellow gladiators?

“Please.” McCaffrey would say to Trubisky. “Dude, come to the gym and we’ll get some core work in and have a smoothie.”

Sorry, don’t mean to sound too sardonic, it’s just that McCaffrey’s decision has left me sour. We try to teach our kids that once they start something, they should not quit. And while the lesson of Notre Dame’s Jaylen Brown — a top-5 pick who fell to the second round because of a bowl injury last year in the Fiesta Bowl — hangs over the proceedings, remember that McCaffrey has a $5 million tax-free insurance policy, according to ESPN, lest he get hurt.

If your argument is that 41 bowl games is too many, I’ll listen to you. If your argument is that college football is corrupt in that all the billions of TV dollars go nowhere near the players, I’ll listen to you and agree with you. But, if your argument is that those two things mean Christian McCaffrey — and Leonard Fournette of LSU, for that matter — should pack it in and skip their final bowl games with their teams, then you’re tearing at a different fabric.

You’re sort of making everything meaningless, really. McCaffrey could set a precedent where a player picks and chooses which games on the schedule are worth playing in. Maybe a conference game at lowly Oregon State is worth skipping, who knows?

We went through this in the last Jock Blog about healthy NBA scratches, didn’t we?

It winds up being funny that the participation trophy era has pioneered the art of not even participating.