Eligibility rules regarding minimum ages for participation in professional sports have forever been a curious, arbitrary, punitive and suspicious thing.
In the NFL, a court-sanctioned standard makes any player who is not yet three full seasons removed from high school graduation ineligible for the league’s draft. It used to be four years — until 1990.
The NBA requires draftees to be at least 19 years old and a year removed from their high school class graduation, as of 2005. Prospects can, however, enter the D-League for nominal pay straight out of high school, or go play in Europe. The NBA used to make players wait four years after high school graduation to compete — until a U.S. Supreme Court decision junked that requirement in 1971. High school prospects were allowed in until the 2005 rule change.
Major League Baseball’s rules allow players to be drafted straight out of high school, unless they attend college. In that case, they must remain through their junior years or until they turn 21. Junior college players, though, can enter the draft whenever they want.
Those requirements are spun by the pro leagues as a means for better facilitating the needs of prospective players. Which is to say, to protect the players from themselves and the temptation to turn pro too early.
The suspicion here is that the rules are meant more to protect professional teams from themselves, and, in some cases, to preserve a no-cost minor league system that has served pro leagues well through the years. In other words, the minimum age requirements might benefit the organizations on both ends of the equation — especially the NCAA and the NBA or the NFL — but they do not fully benefit players who would otherwise be drafted — and paid large sums of money — to do what they are presently doing for little compensation in college.
College football and the NFL, in particular, are the winners here. Not the individual players. CFB gets talent for the cost of tuition for a minimum of three seasons — and the big-time cash that major college football generates for its members — and the NFL gets free training for its future players, as well as extended time to evaluate that talent. The players get their freedom of choice taken away. They play in an ivy-covered academic setting, even if they have no real interest in attending college, effectively majoring in football. That’s a breeding ground for hypocrisy, all in the name of amateurism. Some claim it’s in the best interests of the young players, keeping them shielded from the rigors of pro ball, helping them stay healthy. But they’re just as likely to get hurt playing in college at 20 as they are playing in the NFL at 21.
Much attention has been paid lately to the case of Jadeveon Clowney, the talented defensive end at South Carolina who, coming off his sophomore season, has already shown NFL scouts what they need to see. The 6-foot-6, 256-pound Clowney would be a top pick if he were entered in this year’s draft, plying his trade for millions of dollars instead of being further exposed to football’s violence in college for little remuneration. Anybody who says he’s not ready to move on hasn’t watched Clowney play. Some have even suggested he sit out his junior year to avoid injury while he complies with a ridiculous rule that shouldn’t apply to him.
If an NFL team wants to employ Clowney and pay him $20-plus million — and all of them would — then, why should an arbitrary rule block him from that employment? He’s taking out an insurance policy to protect his future, but that still falls short of his earning potential.
Former Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett challenged the NFL requirement in 2004 and won a lower-court ruling before an appeals panel overturned the decision. Some in the NFL players union are eager for yet another challenge to the sanctioned age discrimination currently in place. And that would be appropriate.
When Kentucky basketball player Nerlens Noel recently blew out his knee in a game against Florida, you had to think the freshman star should have avoided the whole mess by playing for an NBA paycheck. He couldn’t because of the so-called one-and-done rule. That’s the only reason he was at Kentucky. Not for an education, rather to go through the motions required. It’s silly because Noel would have been a high pick had he been eligible coming out of high school. The notion that he — and all the other one-and-doners — suddenly would become much more mature because of a single year of college is just dumb. What it does is give college ball a stream of talent and a chance for schools to profit mightily off that talent, and the NBA more time to evaluate abilities. All while the players themselves play for next to nothing.
That’s a scam.
Even some college coaches disapprove, and want change. Asked about that by Sports Illustrated, Mike Krzyzewski said: "The NBA age limit has had a dramatic effect on the college game. I still believe if a kid wanted to go out of high school, he should go out of high school. And if he comes to college, he should be here for two years. I don’t think it’s a good rule, one-and-done. But I would never want to deprive a great talent, if they didn’t want to go to school, from going into the NBA. I think to make them go to school is a mistake."
Krzyzewski is right.
Eligibility rules should give more flexibility to individual players in individual situations. Some younger athletes are ready to pursue their professional careers, and some are not. Let them decide, and let pro teams decide to draft them, if they will.
GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 and 960 AM The Zone.
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