Now that a federal judge has overturned a National Football League rule that requires players to be out of high school for at least three years before entering the professional draft, some educators and coaches worry the ruling will ultimately devalue the importance of education and send the wrong message to student athletes.
“We are already having a crisis in America with kids not focusing on academics, especially kids of color,” said Peter Roby, the director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University in Boston. “The last thing we need is another distraction for them being serious about school from an early age.”
Robert F. Kanaby, the executive director of the Indianapolis-based National Federation of State High School Associations, said youth athletes today are bombarded by messages that they can make it big as professional athletes, when the chances of that happening are minimal.
“We have experienced this already with other professional sports,” Mr. Kanaby said. “The danger lies in the athletes who think they can make the jump, and they have the right to do so, but by the same token, it’s a right that leads some individuals to make bad decisions.”
‘Rule Must Be Sacked’
The Feb. 5 decision to open the NFL draft to athletes right out of high school came from a U.S. District Court in New York City after former Ohio State University running back Maurice Clarett brought an antitrust suit against the NFL in September. As a college freshman, Mr. Clarett led Ohio State to an undefeated season and a national championship in January 2003 before facing a yearlong suspension for accepting improper benefits and lying to school investigators.
The 20-year-old player argued that the current rule perpetuated a “system whereby college football serves as an efficient and free farm system for the NFL by preventing potential players from selling their services to the NFL,” according to his legal complaint.
The NFL countered that the rule was part of the league’s collective bargaining agreement with the players’ union and was needed to assure that physically immature players were not drafted into the league.
But in defending her decision, Judge Shira A. Scheindlin used the simple language of football.
“Because the NFL cannot prevail on any of these defenses,” Judge Scheindlin wrote, “the rule must be sacked.”
NFL officials said they would appeal the decision.
The NFL does have more restrictive draft requirements than any other professional sport.
A number of current professional basketball players, for example, have made the leap from high school to the National Basketball Association.
Kwame Brown—a graduate of Glynn Academy, a private high school in Brunswick, Ga.—became the first high school player ever selected as the first pick in the NBA draft. The Washington Wizards selected him in 2001. And Cleveland Cavaliers’ rookie LeBron James was drafted last year out of St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron, Ohio.
NBA officials have considered a minimum draft-age requirement of 20, but the players’ union has vowed to fight any attempt to impose such a rule.
Advocates of opening up the NFL draft to younger players point out that Major League Baseball teams routinely draft students right out of high school. But the vast majority of those players are then sent to minor-league affiliates, where they can develop alongside younger players like themselves.
To be eligible for the National Hockey League draft, players must be at least 18. Similar to baseball, NHL teams have minor-league affiliates, where young players are sent to develop.
Major League Soccer, a relatively new professional sport in the United States, has no such age restrictions. And 14-year-old Freddy Adu made headlines when he signed a soccer contract with D.C. United, the professional team in Washington. The native of Ghana is currently a freshman in high school.
‘Athlete’s Best Interest’
Despite the NFL ruling, several high school football coaches said the grueling physical demands of the NFL would make it unlikely that many high school football players would choose to bypass college and enter the draft.
“Only if they are into career suicide,” said Terry Edison, the defensive coordinator for the football team at De La Salle High School, a 1,000-student private school in Concord, Calif. It was the nation’s top-ranked high school team this past season, according to USA Today rankings.
“Football is way too physical a game,” Mr. Edison added. “I can’t imagine a pro team drafting someone out of high school. I’ve had great players come out of this program, and they struggle their first year in college.”
John Poovey, the head football coach at the 1,400-student Loveland High School in Colorado, whose team won a state championship this past season with the help of the nation’s high school football Player of the Year, Jeff Byers, agreed that the physical demands of the NFL would be too hard for even the best high school players.
“Jeff is 6 feet 5 and weighs 270 pounds,” Mr. Poovey said. “He’s a very strong young man. Still, the strength of a man and the strength of a boy are different. The NFL’s rule to wait three years after high school was in the athlete’s best interest.”