The percentage of college football players who are absolutely convinced they’re one day going pro is remarkably high, even among scrubs with little or no shot. The dreams blow deep into double-digits, the reality is a shallow fraction of that.
And that’s one of the reasons why Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh’s ideas for those players — the way they are treated by the NFL and college football — need to be heard. The rules need to change, not unlike the way the NBA and college kingpins altered their rules for basketball prospects.
And they should go on evolving in both sports as circumstances merit more change.
Underclassmen who qualify for NFL Draft eligibility, under present rules, can declare for that draft, but once they do, if they are not selected, they are not permitted to return for their remaining college eligibility. And that calls for change.
During the last draft, too large a number of underclass players were not selected, but they had no option to return to play college ball.
In his “open letter to the football community,” Harbaugh suggested that college players should be eligible for the NFL Draft at any time during their college careers, which differs from the current rule disallowing any player who isn’t three years removed from high school to be taken.
Harbaugh explained that different players progress at different rates, and, therefore, they should have the option to capitalize on pro interest when it arrives, if they so desire. And that if they do go pro, after their professional careers — the average NFL career is south of four years — they should be allowed to return to that college under scholarship for however long they competed at the college level to get their degree. Which is to say, if an athlete played one year in college, he would be entitled to one additional year of paid tuition. If he played two or three years, he would receive two more. If he played four years, he would get one additional year.
All with the understanding that once he was drafted or signed a pro deal, his college playing eligibility would be gone.
If a player is not drafted or signed, as mentioned, he should be able to return to finish his college career.
This makes a whole lot of sense.
As Harbaugh wrote: “The proposal described … would allow the individual to pursue his dream as a student and as a professional athlete in the time frame that best suits his best interests of his own free will and ability.”
It’s never made much sense that the NFL wouldn’t allow players who were physically and mentally ready to turn pro prior to the three-years-after-high school designation. And it never made sense that the NCAA wouldn’t allow players who fulfilled that requirement to return to play in college if that dream didn’t work out as planned, in a similar manner as basketball.
It might create some complications with programs’ planning for their future, as it pertains to recruiting, but those are complexities worth dealing with.
Harbaugh is right that the boundaries of such a model, put into effect in 1990, are now outdated and too limited for what typically is a short window of opportunity.
Why should athletes who otherwise would be wanted by pro teams and drafted by them be limited by an arbitrary rule that prevents that opportunity to pursue a career? That’s un-American. They should be allowed to earn a living. And if those teams don’t deem a college athlete ready, they won’t pick him. Then, let him continue his development at the college level to try again later.
The coach also proposed that college players should be allowed to consult with a lawyer/agent to get the best information possible in making a decision, as long as the athlete does not receive compensation from that adviser. He then can decide, with his family, the best course of action for himself.
Whether such changes are doable is debatable. Former Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett filed a lawsuit in 2004 trying to gain early entry into the NFL Draft, but that attempt was struck down by a Federal appeals court. That decision blocked change that should happen now.
Harbaugh had other suggestions, too, some of them more plausible than others, attempting en route to pry open the minds of traditional decision-makers who often are slow to adopt new regulations. In almost every case, his ideas lean in the direction of the best interests of athletes, athletes who deserve that consideration.
Progress can be made, in a way that will aid college football players, including local athletes at programs such as Utah, BYU and Utah State. Even if that comes at the expense of the schools that use them for their own benefit.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.