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Out of Bounds: NFL drops prohibition against hiring kids

by Derek Clarkston, Sports editor

Veteran players of the National Football League are salivating at the chance to welcome a new crop of talent into the league when they put on their pads for the 2004-2005 season.

For the first time since 1925, when Harold “Red” Grange left Illinois to play for the Chicago Bears, the NFL will open its draft day doors to college underclassmen and recently graduated high school players. This comes after a federal judge struck down an NFL rule that limits participation in the draft to players who are at least three years out of high school, saying it violates a federal antitrust law.


This ruling, made by Judge Shira A. Scheinldin of the Federal District Court in Manhattan, was prompted by Maurice Clarett, a 20-year-old sophomore running back from Ohio State who was suspended last September for accepting thousands of dollars in extra benefits from a caterer near his hometown in Ohio, and for attempting to conceal those gifts from NCAA investigators.

Before Clarett was suspended, he led Ohio State to the 2002 National Championship, and as a freshman, gained 1,237 yards and 16 touchdowns, including the winning touchdown in the 31-24 overtime victory at the Fiesta Bowl.

After being suspended, he sought entry to the NFL but ran afoul of the rule that a player must be out of high school three years to be eligible for the draft. Two weeks after being suspended, Clarett sued the NFL, challenging the rule. His lawsuit argued that the NFL is forcing players who are talented enough to play in the NFL to forgo an income while risking a career-ending college injury.
The NFL responded by saying that the rule, which was put in place in 1993, is meant to prevent young athletes now entering the league before they are mentally and physically mature enough to handle themselves in one of the most physically demanding of sports.

Judge Scheinldin didn’t agree with the NFL and on Feb. 5 declared Clarett eligible for the NFL. Hours after the ruling, the NFL announced it would open the draft to all players, college and high school.

The NFL is expected to appeal the decision to the U.S. Court Appeals for the second Circuit, based in New York. If the ruling is not upheld, the NFL and all levels of football will change forever.

But why are we changing the rules for somebody who couldn’t stay within the rules of college football? Even though Clarett will receive a heavy load of punishment from his soon to be defensive counterparts in the NFL, he hasn’t learned anything. He’s learned that if he get caught breaking the rules, he’ll can challenge another rule. If Clarett did not get the rule change, he would be eligible for the 2005 NFL draft, which would give him a possible chance of returning to the Buckeyes backfield to increase his draft day odds.

The NFL distinguished its self from other professional sports leagues by not letting youngsters onto the field of competition. This is what made the NFL unique. Now it’s going to lose its uniqueness and be put on the same level as Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, and all other sports that allow teenagers to play.

Giving underclassman an option of playing college ball or making money at the professional level will create a ripple affect across sports, that will effect how colleges structure their football programs.

This will trickle down to the high school level as well, because we will soon see pro scouts attending high school games trying to convince teenagers that passing on college for a pro career is a good idea.

Even though Clarett may be ready to take on a 300 pound defensive lineman who lives to put imprints of running backs into the turf, most high school athletes are not ready.

The NFL is different from the NBA, a league that is thriving off of its young guns. Football is a more physically demanding sport; it’s a hitting sport, than basketball, a contact sport. The NFL established this rule in for a reason: league officials know how demanding this sport can be, not a judge who has never played in the NFL and is basing her decision on a book.

Yes, a player’s career in the NFL might be shortened, but the NFL will keep its level of intensity and the respect it gets from not letting youngsters roam the field. In addition, high school athletes are not physically or mentally ready to be pounded day in and day out.

It might be awhile before we do see a high school athlete make the jump from playing on Fridays to playing on Sundays, but before we know it, there will be that high school phenomenon who will try to become the LeBron James of the NFL. Even if the NFL isn’t ready.


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