Age 18 fine - except to play in NFL
Apr. 21, 2004 12:00 AM
Turn 18 years of age, and you can drive an automobile. You can vote for a president. You can join the armed forces and die in the streets of Iraq.
But you are not ready for the National Football League
It is hypocritical and un-American, this crazy notion that you must be three years removed from your high school graduating class to draw a NFL paycheck.
It is also one of the most sensible rules in professional sports.
"There's a vengeance and a malice inside the NFL that is nothing like you see in college," said Doug Plank, former NFL safety. "Some of the players are truly assassins, and I should know. I was one of them."
The NFL may eventually lose this heated battle against ambitious underclassmen, one that shifted dramatically when Maurice Clarett, Mike Williams
and a handful of unknown players were suddenly barred from Saturday's draft.
From a legal standpoint, it doesn't seem to wash with a society built on personal freedoms. From a moral view, it doesn't seem right that USC's Williams can lose his college eligibility simply by following a court ruling that opened the door in the first place.
But the spirit of the rule is perfect. The NFL is an ugly, violent world. It is not for kids, even if any hack lawyer can give you 100 reasons why they should be able to learn the hard way.
"I'm really concerned about young people making these decisions when they don't understand the physical nature of the NFL," Arizona State Athletic Director Gene Smith said. "Frankly, they're not capable."
To this end, Smith said the NCAA is now prepared to make things easier on those who already declared for the draft. As part of the NCAA management council, Smith spent Tuesday in high-level meetings and predicted Williams and Clarett will have their eligibility restored if they so desire.
"I think each of those young men will have the chance to go back to college if they want to," Smith said. "We want to start doing what's best for kids on an individual basis, and I think the culture of the NCAA is changing at the decision-making level."
Certainly, the NCAA has a vested interest. Without the annual wave of early defections to the NFL, its game remains rock solid and enormously lucrative. In return, the NFL gets a free feeder system cranking out mature players.
But forget about motives. This is mostly about common sense, about kids who haven't a clue what lurks on the next level.
"I think the emotional part of it is even more demanding than the physical part," Plank said. "The preseason matters to a young player, which means they'll play 20 games in the NFL. By the time you get to 10 games, you need an emotional rest. To keep the assault on for another 10 is incredibly demanding."
Certainly, there would be players who could handle the transition, and more underclassmen flooding the NFL would not dilute the product the way it has the NBA. But it would be far more dangerous, and only a matter of time before an underdeveloped player went straight from high school into the malicious embrace of Ray Lewis.
Snap, crackle, pop. Now that would be a bad precedent.
Reach Bickley at email@example.com
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