Friday, February 06, 2004

The End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

So. Maurice Clarett decided to challenge the NFL's early-entry rule in court, and won. Now underclassmen will be able to declare for the NFL draft at any point they choose. Previously, players had to wait three seasons after their high school class graduation, meaning they generally played three (or two, with a redshirt year) seasons of college football.

The general consensus on several message boards I visit is that this is a bad thing for both college football and for the NFL. Several journalistic outlets have published this same opinion.

Watch out, everyone! The sky is falling!

I was initially on the same bandwagon, but the more I think about it, the more I think it's not that big of a deal. Let's take a look at a couple of points.

Let's get this out of the way to start: this was the right ruling. The NFL will appeal, and it will almost certainly lose. In a free market society, I don't think you can justify a rule prohibiting kids from playing professional football solely because of their age. Being a football player isn't like being a doctor. You don't need a special degree or certification.

That being said, I do think the three-year rule is a good guideline. There are very few players who are ready for the NFL before those years have passed. I watch a lot of football at all levels, and the difference between high school and professional football is almost literally unbelieveable. The time spent in college--adjusting to a higher level of play, and getting their bodies ready for the punishment--is time that most players simply cannot do without.

In part, I think this is why the rule change isn't going to be a very big deal. Most players aren't ready for the NFL before they've been in college for three years, and they would have to be stupid or seriously misguided to not realize that. I don't think there will be a mass exodus of players who think they're ready. There will be a few. Some will make it, and some won't.

If a large number of previously ineligible underclassmen do leave their teams and declare for the draft, then that will certainly hurt college football. However, NFL scouts get paid to evaluate whether or not guys are ready to contribute right away. There are only so many spots on each team's roster, and they can't waste them on players who need more time to develop. There will definitely be players who think they're ready to make the jump, only to find themselves undrafted. There will be very little watering down of the NFL's talent level.

I think that's where the real problem lies with this ruling. Rest assured, there will be players who think they're ready for the NFL and give up their college eligibility to enter the draft, and end up out in the cold. Players will definitely need to think long and hard about leaving college, and they'll have to think about it earlier than before. They'll have to make sure they're getting and taking advice from people they can trust and people who will be honest about their chances, because there will be others trying to draw them out of school. That's just the way it is.

And there are the rare kids who actually are ready before those three years have elapsed. Those players should celebrate this ruling. There's no need for these kids to continue playing against others who don't provide enough competition to make them better. Imagine if this rule was in place for the NBA, and Lebron James was essentially forced to play in college this year instead of playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers. He would be wasting his time. There aren't many football players in the same boat, due to the extreme physical nature of the sport, but there are some.

I'm a little surprised that Maurice Clarett is the one who managed to bring this rule down. In all honesty, I don't think he's one of the few that is ready for the NFL at an early age. He hasn't yet proved that he can play a full season of even college or high school football without being injured. I'm sure he'll end up getting drafted, but not nearly as high as he would if he would go back to Ohio State and have another successful season on the field.

That's assuming he declares for the draft, of course. According to his attorney, the mere fact that he's won the lawsuit doesn't automatically mean he's leaving. Yeah, right.

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