The NFL announced that a total of ninety-eight former college football players have been granted special eligibility for the 2014 NFL Draft. If the NFL were to include the four players who are technically early-entrants who declared for the NFL Draft, but have already graduated (University of Southern California safety Dion Bailey, Arizona State LB/DE Carl Bradford, Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and University of Alabama linebacker Adrian Hubbard), the number of underclassmen hoping to play in the NFL next year jumps to a whopping total of 102. Compare that number to seventy-three early-entrants in 2013, sixty-five in 2012 and a conservative forty underclassmen taking the risk of being selected by a team in 2007. Why the sudden increase?
It is all about the money. Many of those underclassmen declaring early for the NFL Draft would leave for the professional ranks much earlier if they had the choice. Football players originate from divergent socioeconomic backgrounds. Those that grew up in poor conditions and desire to support their struggling families have a need to earn a living as quickly as possible. Further, players themselves tend to start their own families at an early age and sometimes have children to provide for while they are performing (without compensation beyond a traditional scholarship) for their respective universities.
Players simply do not have a choice. They are bound by an inverse statute of limitations of sorts. Football players are not eligible for the NFL Draft until three years have elapsed since they graduated from high school (or since they would have normally graduated with their class). This “age restriction” rule was challenged by former Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett, who ultimately lost his case against the NFL on the basis that the restriction was instituted as a result of standard collective bargaining negotiations between the NFL Players Association (tasked with bargaining on behalf of NFL players) and the NFL (See Clarett v. Nat’l Football League, 369 F.3d 124 (2d Cir. 2004), cert. denied, 125 S. Ct. 1728 (2005)). If and/or until another challenge is waged in the judicial system, the age restriction will remain in effect and players will have no choice but to wait until three years pass after graduating from high school to declare for the NFL Draft.
This is but one reason for a large number of players declaring for the NFL Draft as underclassmen; many would declare at an earlier age if given the choice. Becoming a professional immediately after high school is rather common in the sport of baseball, wherein high school seniors are scouted by professional scouts and oftentimes sign contracts with Major League Baseball organizations before stepping foot onto a college campus. There is a clear understanding that one takes the money when it is on the table (if the player is properly valued by the club) and begins to perform at an early age, enhancing the potential of reaching salary arbitration eligibility and eventually free agent status, when the marketplace dictates the price of one’s services.
Similarly, football players wish to navigate to second contract negotiations as expeditiously as possible. Reporters are quick to blame (or at a minimum, explain) the influx of underclassmen declaring for the NFL Draft on the newest iteration of the NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement, which created what is considered to be a form of a rookie wage-scale that reduced the amount of guaranteed money available for first-round selections. It may be more of a correlation than causation. Lowered guarantees or not, players want to reach the NFL and start making money — bottom-line — and whether the NFL Draft Advisory Board provides a player a first-round grade or predicts that the player will be selected after the third round, that player is more likely to test the waters today than six years ago.
Why not? Colleges are not disappearing anytime soon. Thus, individuals who declare for the NFL Draft before earning a degree will have the opportunity to go back to school to finish of their coursework. However, this is a determination that should be made with proper counsel. A student-athlete who forfeits his scholarship to go pro will likely not receive any monetary assistance should he decide to go back to school at a later date to complete his degree. That serves as the major knock to players leaving school early based on professional aspirations.
There may also be rare circumstances where a player is able to stay in college for an additional year and raise his draft grade from undrafted to late-round pick. However, some would argue that it is better to go undrafted and choose the team that best fits the player instead of being trapped by an inefficient relationship. Further, it is less common for a player to drastically improve his stock between his junior and senior season than many would have the general public believe. Thus, the immediate reward absorbs the inherent risk of leaving school early for the pros. That is the true reason why so many players are posturing to turn pro at an earlier age.
Meanwhile, Phil Savage, executive director of the Reese’s Senior Bowl predicts a lot of heartbreak for the 102 early-entrants in this year’s NFL Draft. Yet, the same can be said for those who spent an extra year in school and do not hear their name called within one of the seven rounds. ”Everybody sells these kids a song and a dance,” Savage said to the Pensacola News Journal. ”You’re all going to become millionaires. And the reality is, the life span in the NFL is three and four years.” That is simply the reality of the NFL. Teams will shuffle through players for the sheer reason that they wish to keep a cheap labor force and operate within the confines of an artificial salary cap. Whether a player enters the league as an underclassmen or graduate does not alter the formula.
There are 102 players (including the four that already graduated) who will wait anxiously to hear their names called during the 2014 NFL Draft. Expect this number to increase in future years. NFL reporter Jason Cole says, “the real kick in the teeth for players is going to be what they see happen in the next few months.” I respectfully disagree. Some players may be sold promises, but I promise them this: if the NFL is your goal and you think you can prove your worth over the next few months, go live out your dream. The qualification on that statement is that said players should understand that they may not play a down in the NFL and could possibly be forced to pay their way to eventually earn a degree.
Darren Heitner is a Partner at Wolfe Law Miami, P.A. in Miami, Florida, Founder of Sports Agent Blog Professor of Sport Agency Management at Indiana University and author of a forthcoming book, How to Play the Game published by the American Bar Association. Learn more about him at http://www.darrenheitner.com.
Source: Forbes Business