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Threat of NFL lockout doesn't deter top college football underclassmen from declaring for draft

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 11, 2011; 11:59 PM

Friends speculated that Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck would be leaving $60 million on the table if he remained in school - as he announced he would last Thursday - rather than declaring himself eligible for this April's NFL draft.

Luck's father Oliver, a former NFL quarterback, believed such estimates to be inflated nonsense. After studying the NFL's current labor situation, Oliver Luck concluded that no draft pick this year would get rich quickly, while those who left school early risked walking into a potential lockout - with missed training camp time, games, and paychecks.

"I was prepared to share this [cautionary information] with Andrew," said Oliver Luck, currently the athletic director at West Virginia University. "But the bottom line is, it didn't matter to him."

But despite the labor unrest and the possibility of an NFL work stoppage in 2011, undergraduates have been declaring for the draft in droves in recent days. Many seem uninterested in, or not fully aware of, the implications of a lockout, while others seem to harbor the misconception that they are likely to make out better financially by leaving school now.

Nearly 40 underclassmen already have announced publicly that they will take part in the NFL draft. That appears to be about equal to the number who had declared last year at this time, according to NFL spokesman Greg Aiello. The deadline to declare is Saturday.

Athletes who do express concerns about a work stoppage are receiving assurances from some agents that they will provide full-fledged training opportunities for rookie clients if NFL teams bolt their doors and block player access to coaches, trainers and facilities in the spring, summer or even beyond.

"Having taken the temperature of my colleagues and various other contacts from around the league, I don't see that the [labor situation] is having much impact," said Ken Landphere, co-managing director at Octagon Football, a San Francisco-based agency that represents some 60 NFL players. "The number [of players who have announced for the draft] is very large."

The list of undergrads who intend to turn pro includes Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers, UCLA linebacker Akeem Ayers, Alabama running back Mark Ingram, Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert, Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett and many others. Virginia defensive end Zane Parr, Maryland wide receiver Torrey Smith and Virginia Tech running backs Ryan Williams and Darren Evans also have said they will enter the draft.

Players preparing to leave school early seem guided by the typical rationales: the hope of realizing a lifelong dream while their draft stock is high; fear of suffering an injury should they return for another year of school; and the need for cash. But some players also appear to believe they can make more money if they enter this year's draft rather than waiting, which experts say may be an agent-generated misconception.

Aiello said this year's draft will occur under the terms of the current collective bargaining agreement, which expires March 4, but the drafted players will be subject to the terms of the next agreement.

It is widely believed the next agreement will include some sort of rookie wage scale. That means no one in this year's draft class is likely to receive anything close to the record $50 million guaranteed that Sam Bradford, last year's first overall pick, received from the St. Louis Rams.

"I don't have a crystal ball, nor does anyone else," Landphere said, "but it's very disingenuous and unfortunate that people in our business would . . . strongly state that if you come out now that you have a chance of getting a contract that's consistent with rookie contracts from year's past."

Said Oliver Luck: "Everybody has been telling me, 'Mr. Luck, [your son's decision] could be a $60 million decision.' Explain that to me. . . . I don't see any NFL team signing any pick in this year's draft until there's a new collective bargaining agreement.

"It's not as if there's some kind of magical, Harry Potter window in this draft where a player will be the beneficiary of some unusual windfall," Luck added. "The NFL guys are too smart."

Landphere said drawing up a contract in the absence of a collective bargaining agreement would be "a nightmare.

"There's a very, very strong feeling on the part of all of us that there's going to have to be a CBA in place to play the 2011 season . . . [and] sign player contracts," Landphere said.

Parr, the defensive end from Virginia, said he was operating under the assumption he could make more money this year than next when he decided to leave school early. "It's definitely better financially now," he said during a recent phone interview.

Yet he noted issues connected to the NFL's labor situation "didn't even come into play" when he made the decision to attempt to seize his childhood dream. He said he simply had a gut feeling the time was right.

The labor issues were a subject of only limited concern for Gabbert, who feared being sidelined by injury if he returned to school, according to his mother. Agents Tom Condon and Ben Dogra of CAA brought up labor matters pre-emptively, she said.

"They have a whole program in place if a lockout should occur," said Gabbert's mother, Beverly Gabbert. "They addressed it, and we inquired about it . . . I don't think that's a really big issue, as long as your agent has a plan for you."

Landphere said Octagon, too, intended to establish organized training opportunities for its rookies if NFL teams lock out players. He speculated that competing agencies might even discuss sharing facilities and organizing camps as a means of ensuring that young players are adequately covered.

"The bottom line is, our players are going to be actively training and preparing themselves, however long [the lockout] takes," he said.

Oklahoma stars Ryan Broyles and Travis Lewis pondered coming out early but decided to remain in school. Like Andrew Luck, however, they did not publicly cite labor concerns as a central issue. Luck based his decision to forego the draft almost entirely on his desire to get his degree and enjoy the college experience for another year, not to avoid the NFL's labor unrest, his father said.

"There could be missed games because of the strike; there could be an abbreviated preparatory season," Oliver Luck said. "That would be pretty tough on a rookie quarterback . . . [But] I'm not sure that mattered at all in his thinking."

Oliver Luck said it was after going through the 57-day strike and seven missed games as a Houston Oilers rookie in 1982 that he developed a keen interest in labor issues. When he retired before the 1987 season, it was partly because of his desire to pursue his law degree - which he earned at the University of Texas - and in part to avoid what he believed to be a certain work stoppage.

He was right: There was a 24-day strike and one missed game in 1987.

Of course, the young players pondering whether to leap into the draft weren't even born then. Many can't fathom such an interruption to their careers.

"With everything at stake, we feel fairly comfortable that hopefully there won't be a lockout, or if there is, it won't last long," Beverly Gabbert said. "It was a factor [in our discussions], but not a huge factor."

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