College football should cap its playoff at four teams. The reason: Marcus Lattimore.
The South Carolina running back spent his 21st birthday Monday checking out of a hospital, wondering if the gruesome knee injury he suffered Saturday will ruin his NFL dreams.
Forbes estimates the injury to Lattimore's right knee could cost him $9 million in professional earnings in his first four years alone, much more if he never plays a down in the NFL. That should sound an alarm across the entire college football landscape.
Injuries happen in sports, and especially in football, but adding games only increases the chances of something happening, which is why the idea of an eight-team playoff should end right here and now. A four-team playoff is plenty in college football. Anything more is dangerous and unfair to those like Lattimore who don't get a dime of pay.
As of this writing, South Carolina officials aren't sure if Lattimore even has the disability insurance offered by the NCAA. But that policy should only be part of the precaution. Every single added game risks another debilitating injury that can leave a superstar's future in doubt. That reality is too often shoved aside in the push for a satisfactory conclusion to every college football season.
Stars like Lattimore, a likely first-round draft pick before the injury, are not paid for 12 games and they won't be paid for up to 15. That's potentially 25 percent more "labor" with no additional compensation. Considering the millions some players risk by stepping onto the field every Saturday, extending their unpaid internships is ridiculous at best, un-American at worst.
In the same summer that sprung the debate about whether the game of football is safe enough for children to play, when former NFL players are coming out in droves talking about how too many blows to the head have made their lives today a living hell, the BCS gave way to a four-team playoff with hardly any discussion about the health implications of adding more games. In fact, signing up the next generation of football stars for a playoff was greeted with almost universal celebration. But since when is the risk of knee injuries and concussions more tolerable when a national title is on the line?
Yes, we're only talking about one or two extra games for one or two teams, but these one or two games are sure to be loaded with pro prospects like Lattimore who are a few quarters away from paydays that will set them up for life. If college football players were unionized, which they should be, the addition of more games would not have been rubber stamped so easily.
Think the NFL players are going to agree to two extra games free of charge?
We heard very little opposition to the push for student-athletes to play 14- and 15-game seasons, or essentially a professional schedule, complete with all the same risks involved but minus the monetary compensation. Yes, they get scholarships, but they already have scholarships for playing a regular season, plus a conference title game, which was similarly supported without a second thought or a discussion that involved player representatives.
Lattimore's injury happened during a regular-season game, but something very similar has already happened in a national title game. In the 2003 BCS championship, Miami's Willis McGahee shredded several knee ligaments late in his team's loss to Ohio State. McGahee rehabbed and has gone on to have a lucrative NFL career, but not before 22 teams passed on him in the '03 draft in which he was expected to go in the top five. McGahee is the exception that proves the rule – and the risk.
Lattimore might not ever play in the NFL, and he may not ever play football again. His injury – a dislocated knee – was among the most unsightly in recent memory. But it was not a freak injury. It was the kind of disaster than can happen on any play, including the one that almost ruined McGahee's career. The fantasy football freaks who avoid 30-something running backs like the plague should know that every football game is a pound of sand falling through a very small hourglass that is a skill position player's career. And as much as we all want to see Lattimore in the NFL, his surgically repaired legs will make every NFL GM wary going forward.
This isn't to say the regular-season schedule should be reduced or a playoff should be abandoned. Players want to win a title for their schools. Lattimore, undoubtedly, wants to win a title for South Carolina nearly as much as he wants to be drafted. Maybe more so. But that title can be won with a four-team playoff format.
Look at this season for proof: It's not even November and only four prominent contenders are left – Alabama, Notre Dame, Oregon and Kansas State. LSU and Georgia deserve consideration, too, but they will get their shot against Alabama and possibly each other.
Staying at a four-team playoff will lead to debate and likely some disappointment. Some team will inevitably get left out, just as one will in an eight-team playoff or a 16-team format or a 64-teamer. Teams get left out of every playoff setup in every sport. The Tampa Bay Rays, for example, played a tougher schedule than the Detroit Tigers, won more games and didn't make the playoffs. Stuff happens. Teams move on. Programs move on. But Marcus Lattimore might not be able to move on.
The next time anyone cries foul over how the college football system screwed their team, remember what happened to him two days before his 21st birthday. It's better that we spend the rest of our lives wondering what would have happened in a hypothetical playoff game than a talented young man spending the rest of his life wondering what would have happened in a hypothetical pro football career.
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