Sidelined by a shoulder injury and stunned by the tempest he stirred up in acknowledging he was considering turning pro, Ohio State freshman running back Maurice Clarett is backpedaling from the idea as fast as an all-pro safety, insisting he intends to remain a Buckeye another three seasons.
But the simple fact that an uncommonly gifted 19-year-old is tempted has focused new light on the NFL rule prohibiting youngsters from entering the draft until three years after their high school class graduates.
According to legal scholars and attorneys in the field, that rule likely violates antitrust law and would crumple under legal challenge. But on the unforgiving playing fields of the NFL, a different sort of law prevails. And according to many who make their living in the professional game, if the current rule were overturned and teenagers won the right to enter the NFL draft, it would be a dubious victory indeed.
"If [Clarett] goes onto the field this early, it would be the worst mistake he ever made in his young, adolescent career," Green Bay Packers college scout John Dorsey said. "People don't realize how physically demanding football is. You can sit and watch it on TV, but until you sit on the sideline and feel how fast the game is and how explosive it is, you'll never know. It is twice as explosive as college."
Washington Redskins linebacker LaVar Arrington, who left Penn State after his junior year, recoils at the thought of lining up against a player with just a dozen college games under his belt.
"For me, it would be like hitting a kid!" Arrington says. "If you're a true freshman in college, you're not only mentally not ready -- you're physically not ready. That would be like a college player going to play high school ball, in my opinion."
Clarett acknowledged he was considering turning pro in an interview with ESPN the Magazine. In an interview this week, he distanced himself from those remarks.
"I plan on being here four years," he said. "I'm not saying I'm leaving after one year, two years, three years. . . . It's unheard of. You can't go to the NFL after one year. I don't think it's physically or mentally possible."
It Works in Other Sports
Plenty of teenagers in other sports make their living among professional athletes, of course. Tennis player John McEnroe left Stanford for the pro tour after his freshman year. Legions of baseball players and Olympians never bother with college. And scores of basketball players now bail for the NBA after amassing just a few hours' credit. Some, such as Washington Wizards forward Kwame Brown, suit up directly from high school.
But the leap from college football to the NFL defies quantifying.
The speed feels double-time. Decision-making time is cut in half. The hits by 250-pound, professionally chiseled linebackers can end careers. The rigors of a 20-game season are withering. And the mental fatigue and stress are worse.
Says Arrington: "I'm in the bathroom the other day, and I'm thinking, 'I have a piece of lint in my hair.' But I have a white hair! At age 24, I'm starting to sprout white hairs! This ages you!"
From a legal perspective, the NFL-mandated waiting period likely violates the Sherman Antitrust Act, says sports agent Neil Cornrich, whose clients include New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick, Dana Stubblefield of the San Francisco 49ers and former Minnesota Vikings running back Robert Smith.
Still, Cornrich thinks coming out early would be a huge mistake for all but the most rare and gifted college players.
"There are some individuals who are physically and emotionally advanced and should probably have the right to do it if they wanted to," Cornrich says. "As long as there are no educational or licensing requirements, in what other field are roadblocks to advancement put in place? Imagine if Bill Gates had been blocked from dropping out of Harvard to start Microsoft."
The NFL's draft-eligibility rule was instated by Commissioner Paul Tagliabue in 1990. Prior to that, non-seniors who wanted to enter the draft were granted permission on a case-by-case basis.
While the NFL doesn't require players to attend college, its three-year waiting period ensures that prospects will be at least 20 -- a reasonable guess of when the adolescent male body fully develops.
"The thinking behind it is the overwhelming majority of players would be ill-served by coming out early," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said. "It's just clear from our experience: There are very few players who are good enough three years out of high school to make an NFL squad, let alone prior to that. The chances would be that much tougher for someone even younger. The physical nature of the game is just one of the factors. The physical and mental maturity needed to compete in the NFL is extraordinary."
So far, no player has challenged the rule in court. That alone, Aiello argues, attests to its wisdom. But if need be, the NFL would defend it in court. "We've always maintained that we are prepared to defend our rule," Aiello said.
According to Matthew J. Mitten, director of the National Sports Law Institute at Marquette, the NFL's most compelling legal argument would be that it has the right to set reasonable eligibility rules. The league also would argue that because the vast majority of players aren't ready to turn pro until three years after high school, the rule doesn't restrain trade in any meaningful way.
Still, Mitten thinks a player who challenged the rule would prevail, pointing to a successful antitrust case brought by a teenager against the now-defunct World Hockey Association, which required draft-eligible players to be at least 20. The federal district court in Connecticut ruled that blanket restrictions on age, without regard to a player's talent, were seemingly illegal.
"As an Ohio State fan, do I want to see [Clarett] go to the NFL this soon? No," says Mitten, an OSU graduate. "But as a legal scholar, do I think he'd have a pretty good chance of getting a court to enjoin the NFL from enforcing its rule? I do, based on prior precedent."
Reasons to Wait
According to the NFL Players Association, more than 360 non-senior players entered the draft between 1990 and 2000. Of that group, almost one out of every four was never offered an NFL contract. Among those who did sign with a team, coming out early resulted in a financial windfall for only a select few -- generally those chosen among the top 10 overall.
This past April's draft class illustrates the point. The top five players taken will earn an average of $2.91 million this season. But earnings dropped more than 50 percent midway through the first round, with the 15th and 16th overall picks earning an average of $1.28 million. Players at the bottom of the first round will make barely $1 million.
According to the NFLPA, players are better off staying in college and giving both their bodies and minds time to fully mature. That way, they'll enter the league with their earning potential at its highest -- a wise decision, given the brevity of the typical pro career.
Even if Clarett changed his mind and won the right to turn pro this spring, Washington-based sports agent Mason Ashe paints a grim picture of the bottom-line business of applying for the draft.
Having forsaken his NCAA eligibility, Clarett, as a non-senior, wouldn't be allowed to showcase his skills in the so-called "all-star bowls" that follow the postseason. But he would be invited to the NFL combine, where players are weighed, measured, timed, poked and prodded by team doctors and clip-board toting scouts; interviewed by team owners and general managers; and subjected to a barrage of psychological tests.
"How is an 18-year-old guy going to handle that?" Ashe asks. "It's like running for president."
Through it all, legions of agents -- not all of them forthright -- are chatting up top prospects in an effort to win their trust and business. Such courtship often begins years before, in violation of NCAA rules that ban contact with agents, through so-called "runners" -- middle-men who are paid to feed blue-chip players' egos and lure them into contractual relationships.
"If someone tells them they're good enough to play at the level, that's all they hear," Ashe says. "They don't understand about entering [the draft] at the highest peak of productivity. They hear, 'You are a man among boys!' "
Dealing With Dollar Signs
Arrington, whose rookie contract included a $10.75 million signing bonus, understands well the lure of money -- especially if it affords a player the chance to provide for his family.
So does Redskins defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson, an Ohio State product who was chosen with the first overall pick of the 1994 draft after playing just three college seasons.
"Of course every student, every parent wants their child to get their degree," Wilkinson says. "But you have all the time in the world to go back and finish your degree. If you meet the requirements to leave early, and you have that opportunity, then you should do it."
But like the NFL, Wilkinson draws the line of common sense after a player's third year out of high school. "I don't think any one-year guy is ready," he says. "It takes at least three years."
Arrington made his decision after weighing the costs and benefits. He didn't like the dictatorial style of the college game. He chafed at the millions colleges were earning by marketing their student-athletes. And, most important, he had won every honor he had hoped for by his junior year. All that remained was a national championship, and based on the crop of players graduating, Arrington knew Penn State wasn't on the cusp of that. So he concluded that if he stayed another year, the only place his NFL stock would go was down.
Still, he sometimes wonders if it was worth it.
"I would have never thought that I would miss college, but if I could do it all over again, I probably would have stayed if there wasn't so many different things you had to deal with," Arrington said.
"The whole college experience -- once it's gone, it's gone. Even if you go back to get your degree, it's not the same because you're an outsider just going to school there. Plus, those are valuable years for your mind to grow. All the things that I thought would be worth it -- I'd be able to have my own car, I'd have my own place -- those are things, in a lot of situations, you can wait for."
Staff writer Jason La Canfora contributed to this report from Columbus, Ohio.