The NFL has been turning hopeful college athletes into professional football heroes since 1902. More recently, the football league’s coaches and executives implemented the 1990 NFL eligibility rule. The rule was implemented as part of the collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and the players’ union. This rule states that players must be out of high school by three years in order to be included in the NFL draft. Well up until now that is.
On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin rejected a request from the NFL to suspend the ruling she made Feb. 4 ordering the NFL to permit Ohio State running back, Maurice Clarett, to enter the NFL draft in April. Scheindlin based her original decision on the grounds that the NFL was violating antitrust laws. If Scheindlin’s ruling survives further appeals, Clarett may well find himself a member of the organization that endorsed the very rule he has successfully challenged, the Player’s Association.
Suspensions aside, Clarett had an incredible freshman year at Ohio State, rushing for 1,237 yards at 5.6 yards per carry and 16 touchdowns, which helped lead the Buckeyes to a 2002 national championship. Arguments made by the league that college-age players would be unable to compete with seasoned professionals, be prone to injuries from overtraining and likely to resort to steroid abuse appear weak when applied to the 230-pound star.
This ruling, however, will clear the path for other young athletes to enter the draft. While NFL teams will not want to fritter away draft picks on college athletes who are not capable of performing in the NFL, the temptation to sign up athletes following outstanding freshman seasons will be difficult for NFL general managers to resist. What remains unknown, is how well General Managers will be able to judge the physical and mental readiness of football players as young as 19.
The physical and mental pressures of playing in the NFL at such a tender age is likely to result in a high failure rate, leaving athletes with no career and no education on which to fall back.
Proponents of the rule change have pointed to the success of athletes such as Kobe Bryant and numerous athletes in MLB that skipped college as proof that the NFL’s concerns are groundless. Football, however, is by far the most physically punishing mainstream American sport. Figures released by the NFL Players Association cite the average career span of an NFL player as around 3 1/2 years. With such a brutal turnover rate, the NFL’s conviction that young athletes, whose bodies are still developing, require protection makes more sense.
In terms of freedom of choice for Clarett and other athletes, it is difficult to refute the logic of Scheindlin’s ruling, but this may well be a case where the ambition of young men for the fame and fortune of the NFL should be tempered by the need for society to protect young, inexperienced players.