NFL: “Mo’ Better Lose”

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September 25, 2003
NFL: "Mo’ Better Lose"
by Keith Weiland

Maurice Clarett and his bevy of lawyers filed an innocuous complaint earlier this week that could have ramifications to the NFL and the draft far beyond whatever happens to Clarett once the dust settles. Clarett, Ohio State’s all-conference running back, is objecting to a long-standing NFL rule that prevents athletes from being eligible for the NFL with fewer than three years removed from high school graduation.

To most of the country, the NFL Draft ranks as the most entertaining off-season activity in all professional sports. It has become a day of decoration for some of the best that college football has to offer. If the court decides in favor of Clarett, draft day could wind up being a parade of pimples and braces as teenage unknowns ride the Sherman Act into the NFL. Worse yet, it could follow the fate of the NBA Draft and become less relevant to our sports culture with each passing season.

Taking a step back from the sports world, Clarett’s beef with the NFL is not a bad thing. It’s simply the law. As stated in his complaint, the NFL has a monopoly over professional football in this country, and for someone with Clarett’s unique athletic ability, the league represents his only avenue to receive compensation for that ability.

College football, to the NFL at least, is a cost-free farm system that allows its teams (and agents, too, for that matter) to limit the vast pool of eligible players it needs to scout for upcoming drafts. NFL scouting is already complicated enough as it is, what with the volume and variety of college programs, not just at the popular Division I-A level, but at all of the other levels as well.

Now imagine for a moment the extent to which those colleges seek and recruit high school talent. A ruling in favor of Clarett opens the door thousands more who might have their hopes set on NFL dollars instead of a college education. A grassroots search for these players is a magnanimous effort for which the league is not prepared.

I know Clarett’s lawsuit, despite having been feared by the league for years, must have NFL offices freaking out right about now. But should it concern them as much as it probably will? Not only is Clarett’s circumstance a unique one, the notion that tens or hundreds of high school players are willing, ready, and worthy to declare their eligibility for the draft is preposterous.

First, Clarett firmly believes that he is a first round candidate, even having nads enough to state that if he had been eligible last April, he would have been selected in the beginning of the first round of the 2003 draft in the complaint. Clarett does play a position that lends itself to early success in the NFL, but Clarett is at best a late first round candidate on my board.

And second, of even the college players that are currently deemed ineligible for the 2004 draft, there may be fewer than a dozen players – guys like WRs Larry Fitzgerald and Mike Williams immediately come to mind – that would be worthy of first or second round consideration.

Consider that roughly thirty or forty juniors and redshirt sophomores forgo their remaining college careers for NFL stardom each year. There are hundreds more who are able to declare but stay behind despite being worthy of competing for an NFL roster spot. Just because someone may have the talent and potential does not mean that person makes the jump early.

There are simply not enough spots on the draft’s first day to justify the decision financially. There are plenty of examples of players who have considerable talent that choose to stay in college until their eligibility is exhausted. Some may say they do this to obtain a degree, but the reality is that the NFL values the extra year of competitive experience, the same experience that those excluded from the draft lack on their resumes. By staying that extra year, most of those players inevitably elevate their draft status – and therefore their bonus paycheck – in the following year.

So unlike the NBA, there probably aren’t many players, domestic or otherwise, that would be crawling out of the woodwork as first round picks. For the short term at least, the impact of the decision on Clarett’s case will be over-hyped.

The NFL’s salary cap is also more restrictive than the NBA’s, and despite having a much larger roster, it would be a far more difficult task to bury an eighteen year old on an NFL roster than it would be a 12th man on an NBA roster. While basketball teams can get by with eight or nine man rotations, NFL teams tend to better utilize their entire complement of players on Sundays.

The long-term effects, however, may not be so limited. The league should quickly take advantage of the high school recruiters that college programs utilize. The question will become just how dependable those scouting reports on high school players will be when millions of dollars are at stake. The NFL does not take it’s first round selections lightly, and it is the opinion of this court that scouting high school players and college freshmen should be far too speculative for teams in a win-now version of the NFL.

Will Smith   Smith  

Northwestern @ Ohio State, 11:00am CT, ESPN2 – I know this isn’t a blockbuster matchup, but there are two players on the Buckeye squad worth checking out at several points throughout the season. Defensive end Will Smith is a tough and speedy edge rusher who may fit the mold as a 3-4 OLB. Watch him to see if you think he has what it takes. Also, it probably goes without saying, but cornerback extraordinaire Chris Gamble will probably put on another display of football instincts that will shock and awe us all.

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