Football took a potentially brutal hit Wednesday when a federal judge rejected the NFL’s appeal to suspend the judge’s ruling in the Maurice Clarett saga.
The judge ruled last week that the NFL’s policy requiring players to be at least three years out of high school violates anti-trust laws. In addition to Clarett, several players not previously eligible, including 2003 Heisman Trophy finalist Larry Fitzgerald from Pittsburgh, have declared themselves eligible for the 2004 NFL draft.
Clarett’s NFL career will carry a lot of significance. If he is a flop, and he very well may be after not playing at all in 2003, future players may not be so quick to jump to the professional ranks and, hopefully, we will not see a high school-to-professional jump anytime soon. However, should Clarett maintain the level of play he showed as a freshman at Ohio State, the college game will quickly lose talent as promising young players are lured away by the money and the glamour of the NFL.
Because any outstanding high school basketball prospect receives national attention and NBA consideration, college basketball has become a watered-down NBA junior. The talent in NCAA basketball can’t compare to that of the NBA, because elite players don’t stay in college for any length of time, if they go at all. The NBA is hurting as well, though. Players enter the league with so much hype, then take years to develop, and, in some cases, never mature to the point they could have had they played in college. Therefore, some may never live up to their full potential.
The football world faces the same problem now. Fitzgerald was arguably the best college player in the nation last season, and would have entered the 2004 college season as a Heisman front-runner. Instead, he will likely be a No. 2 or 3 wide receiver on an NFL team, and college football will have one less player to celebrate. Should an influx of young talent decide to go to the NFL earlier, the quality of NCAA play will suffer in comparison with the NFL. Unlike basketball, college football has a variety of rules that differ from those of the NFL, at least creating some differences between the brands, but less-talented players cannot be disguised for long by unique overtime formats or other rules.
If players start entering the draft after high school or one year of college play, they no longer enter the league as qualified players, but rather as “investments.” Even with the rule as it stood for more than a decade, players such as 2003 Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer fell into this trap. Palmer, the first player chosen overall in last April’s draft, did not play a single game for the Cincinnati Bengals, and likely will not enter 2004 as the team’s starter. If more players jump, this will become common, as players will not be expected to contribute to the team that signs them for several years after joining the roster.
Contrary to what the NFL wants everyone to believe, the physical ability of the newly-available draftees will not be an issue. Barry Sanders, possibly the best running back in NFL history, stood just 5’8″ and weighed 200 pounds for most of his career. Clarett, to put it in perspective, is 6-foot and weighs 230 pounds.
What the league needs to worry about are players like Clarett entering the league before they are emotionally ready. Clarett has lied to Ohio State and the NCAA, cheated on, or bypassed all together final exams, and has at every significant stop seemed like a greedy, self-absorbed whiner. He, simply put, is not ready at all for the spotlight that comes with a pro career, especially given the attention he is sure to receive. Clarett just seems like the kind of guy who would go out, score a touchdown and run back to the locker room to call his friend and brag about it.
No matter how much people want to think otherwise, there are a lot of players who are just not ready for the NFL. Clarett carries a lot of weight on his shoulders, and his career will have an incredible effect on the future of college and professional football. Hopefully, the judgment rejecting the league’s motion does not cause the NFL to lose its appeal.