Sunday, November 11, 2012

NFL/NCAA wrong to lock high school players out

Here is an op-ed I wrote for Clemson's student newspaper, The Tiger.

On Saturday October 27th, South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore suffered a dislocated knee in a game against the Tennessee Volunteers. This is the second significant knee injury for Lattimore in as many years. While team officials and doctors are optimistic about Lattimore’s chances to play football again, this injury forces us to reexamine the NFL’s “3 year rule”.
For those not familiar with the rule, the collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) states that athletes who want to enter the NFL draft must be out of high school for at least three years. Supporters claim that this rule is in place to keep college athletes in school longer and to ensure that those drafted are physically ready for the NFL. I say what a bunch of garbage. What it really does is protect current players from competition, save the NFL team owners money, and line the pockets of college athletic departments.
It should come as no surprise that the NFLPA, NFL, and NCAA agreed to the rule. Look at the incentives involved. Current players do not have to worry about younger, cheaper athletes taking their jobs. The owners get a free developmental league which they do not have to pay a dime to support. Major college athletic departments get to field an elite product using extremely cheap labor. In the 2010 – 11 season, the University of Texas football team led the nation with a profit of just over $71 million. Twelve other schools earned over $30 million in profit[1]. I doubt that these large profits would be possible if the best players were allowed to skip college football, leaving colleges with a shallower talent pool.
But all of this misses the moral issue. Why are college football players denied the right to earn a living? The best players, players like Marcus Lattimore, would be millionaires right out of high school. Who are we as a society to say that it is OK for Mark Zuckerberg to drop out of school at 19 to take a risk starting a business but it is not OK for Marcus Lattimore at the same age to take his chances in the NFL? Like Mr. Lattimore, Mark Zuckerberg likely would have benefited from the increased maturity that comes with age before starting his business. But that does not mean that we have the right to deny him the opportunity. It is not obvious that college football players are systematically less mature than aspiring entrepreneurs yet we treat each group as if that were true. And I do not buy the argument that college players are physically unable to handle the NFL. According to the recruiting website, Marcus Lattimore was 6 feet tall, 210 pounds and could bench press 270 pounds coming out of high school, numbers that are well within the range of NFL running backs. The four and five star recruits that would likely choose the NFL over college are physically gifted.
Supporters of the rule often point to the fact that the average NFL career is only 3.5 years long. Well according to a recent study, up to 75% of startups fail[2]. Yet society encourages Mark Zuckerberg to take a risk while discouraging Marcus Lattimore. Perhaps society values intellectual pursuits over physical. Or maybe the Zuckerbergs of the world are better able to gauge risk than the Lattimores. Whether the first statement is true or not, it ignores the injustice done to the individual and I think the second is false.
Allowing the best players the opportunity to skip college for the pros would also help the integrity of college football. We never hear about improper payments to college baseball or hockey players because the great players that the coaches and boosters want to pay go pro. In football, however, society has decided that it is better to force young athletes to go to college, regardless of their circumstances. What if a player is from a poor family and needs money to help a loved one? Too bad. The NFL and NCAA officials sleep better at night knowing that they forced him to go to college, regardless of his needs.
            What the NFL and the NCAA are doing to the young men that play college football is terrible. They are depriving them of their right to earn a living under the guise of “protecting them”, when really they are only protecting themselves financially. I hope that the players begin to understand their situation and that they put pressure on the NFL to change their rules, either by new challenges in court or by choosing to play in other professional leagues such as the Arena League or the CFL, perhaps even in lieu of playing in college.


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