- Tim Keown, ESPN Senior Writer
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You have to give the NFL credit: It has the absolute best business deal. It's so good, in fact, that even the most devious monopolist would have a hard time finding an industry that compares. The NFL's monopoly includes an antitrust exemption, which has gone a long way toward creating $9 billion in annual revenue, and the most convenient and cost-effective farm system in sports: college football.
The best part about that farm system? It doesn't cost the NFL anything.
But wait, there's more: The NFL gets to collude with the NCAA on player eligibility, which means the two entities can force players to spend three years in college no matter how detrimental it might be to the professional and personal well-being of those players.
The system is self-serving, hypocritical and borderline socialistic. College programs use it to create continuity and remain relevant. The NFL uses it to ensure the prepackaging of stars at the amateur level and provide a steady flow of recognizable talent to a sport with an attrition rate that's just slightly better than what you'd find at your local drive-thru window. In other words, it's backslaps all around for everyone but the guys doing the labor.
Why does this matter? Because four 2013 juniors -- Jadeveon Clowney, Teddy Bridgewater, Marqise Lee, Cyrus Kouandjio -- would be top 10-15 picks in the April draft if they were allowed to leave college and pursue their chosen profession. Clowney would be the No. 1 pick, no questions asked, and he would pocket a few pennies less than $24 million -- guaranteed -- before summer if the system had the best interests of its athletes in mind.
But it doesn't work that way. This is a world of servants and the served, and the players are clearly at the mercy of those they serve. The bosses make the rules, so the bosses reap the benefits. These players -- with South Carolina's Clowney as their hypertrophic, outsized mascot -- are being punished by a ridiculous rule that has more to do with the collective profits of the two overarching entities than the players' best interests.
What will the players do? They'll go back to school. They have no choice.
Oh, they could unionize. Or they could get together and decide en masse to spend a year training at an IMG-like academy, where the tab can be picked up by an agent while they work out and give their brains a rest from the pounding. But there's nobody rebellious enough to organize that. Asked about the prospect of Clowney skipping his junior year to avoid injury, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "If money was his only goal in life, then he couldn't play. And he might not get into a car before next year's draft, so he wouldn't get into a car wreck and get injured."
Or, to be more realistic and less flippant, Clowney could look at the example of teammate Marcus Lattimore, who carried the ball 249 times for Spurrier as a true freshman, tore the ACL in his left knee as a sophomore and injured his right knee as a junior. He didn't get into a car wreck, but those terrible injuries might end up destroying a potentially lucrative career. Contrast that with Eagles running back Bryce Brown, whose off-field issues limited him to 104 carries in barely more than one college season with two schools but who might end up making a small fortune in the NFL.
But the system as it stands works for the NFL, which doesn't have to create a league to train an annual influx of young but talented players, and it works for the NCAA, which gets to sell Clowney jerseys and keep the profits, and it works for $3.3 million a year to college coaches like Spurrier. It just doesn't work for the few players who have the misfortune of being good enough to make money off their talent before the system decides it's time.
Here's an idea: How about we let the professional general managers and player-development gurus decide who's ready to play in the NFL? How about instituting a system like the one proposed by ESPN Insider's Chris Sprow, which would base draft eligibility on participation standards -- snaps for a defensive end like Clowney, carries for a running back like Lattimore, pass attempts for a quarterback like Bridgewater -- rather than the arbitrary three-year benchmark currently in place?
Granted, it would require a paradigm-altering thought process. First, dispense with the idea of college football players at this level being in school for the school. That's an idea that sounds good but frequently has no basis in reality. We'd like to believe that someone like Clowney will embrace the college life and grow as a human and a scholar, but that's just the paternalistic, cosmetic spackle we spread on the wall when we're talking about someone we don't know. If it were us, or our son, we'd want him to get on with his life, avoid a senseless injury and get paid the most for what he does the best. Prodigies in any other field -- figure skating, technology, music -- are encouraged to do this, but for some reason college athletes are held to some Olympian standard that makes everyone feel good but manages to assiduously avoid reality.
(PayPal founder Peter Thiel, an iconoclastic sort, has a program where he hands out $100,000 annually to 24 students under 20 to skip college and start their own businesses. Thiel is intent on challenging the assumption that higher education is sacrosanct, and he's targeting academic geniuses, not athletic ones.)
If a participation clause makes a coach like Spurrier (not to pick on Spurrier, but still) think twice about giving a freshman 249 carries, great. He can still go ahead and do that, but he does it knowing he stands a good chance of losing the kid after his sophomore year.
The average career in the NFL lasts 3.5 years. For the sake of argument, let's be generous and triple that for a top-10 draft pick. By taking away that one year of peak earning and athletic prime -- a year Clowney or Bridgewater must unnecessarily spend in college -- the system is reducing his career earning power by close to 10 percent. Knowing what we know about the rigors of the sport, it's not outrageous to suggest that every human body contains a finite number of snaps. In a sport with blown knees, repeated concussions and nonguaranteed contracts, one year is a big deal.
Every dive an offensive lineman takes at one of Clowney's knees next season puts him that much closer to being finished as a player. Every cheap shot Bridgewater takes from some hopped-up linebacker threatens to reduce his earning power. Why should a guy who redshirts his first year at Utah State, sits on the bench for two years and starts as a redshirt junior be eligible for the draft while a guy who plays every snap in the SEC for two years -- and dominates -- is forced wait until the end of that third year to get paid? Isn't the physical toll exacted in those first two years enough dues-paying for them to earn their way into the real money?
The best players, the ones who generate the most revenue, attract the most eyes and win the most games, are held hostage by an arbitrary, self-serving system. They're commodities, sprinkled with the patronizing glitter of what everyone else thinks is best for them. Hypocrisy is rarely this transparent.
The NFL draft restricting who can enter is self-serving, hypocritical and borderline socialistic. Colleges use it to create continuity and remain relevant. The NFL uses it to ensure prepackaged stars and to provide a steady flow of talent.