Influx of underclassmen declaring for the draft affects both the NFL and college football. But how?

We sports fans and sports law scholars are at an exciting time in sports law. The O’Bannon case has just been cleared to proceed to trial, Northwestern University football players are challenging longstanding notions of student-athletes not being employees, and more and more college football players are leaving after 3 years, temporarily creating an influx of talent into the NFL while diminishing top-end competition in college football.

The NFL’s draft rules prevent individuals from entering the draft any sooner than three years after high school graduation. Ohio State University running back Maurice Clarett attempted to challenge the NFL’s rule. The resulting litigation, Clarett v. Nat’l Football League, 369 F.3d 124 (2d Cir. 2004), cert. denied, 125 S. Ct. 1728 (2005), challenged, but did not overturn, this rule on grounds that it is anti-competitive and in violation of the Sherman Act. The decision, written by now Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor, stated the rule is subject to a non-statutory labor exemption as a matter of mandatory bargaining in the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement. The rule remains in place as part of the CBA, allowing players to declare for the draft before their final season as NCAA student-athletes. The lasting effect of this rule is a record number of players with remaining eligibility entering the draft this year. While one would argue this is good for the NFL by increasing the talent pool in this year’s draft, others worry about a reduction of high-end competition in college football.

The NFL’s three year rule is arguably in place for a number of reasons: allowing a player to mature, both physically and mentally, to the level of a professional, allowing a player to develop their athletic ability to the level of a professional, and to give the NFL a chance to better evaluate the caliber player and proclivity to injury. There is a question of whether players who enter the draft before graduation have truly reached their potential and whether or not the NFL will cultivate their talent to a higher level any more efficiently than an additional year on the college level. It is understood that those players who enter the draft are more than likely every-game starters. After entering the NFL, many of these players are kept to the sidelines. Besides, the NFL Combine—instrumental in ascertaining draft value for college players—is traditionally open just to those who have exhausted their eligibility. Underclassmen are not banned from the Combine, but there are no guarantees that they will be accepted. Indeed, the NFL actively discourages players from leaving school early. 

Perhaps more troubling than reduced athleticism in the NFL and college football is the reduced chance for a full education for many players. There are already widespread claims of student-athletes skating by on the coattails of lax professors and overreaching tutors—graduating with a degree that provides almost no real world experience or knowledge. That is, if they graduate at all. Currently, graduation data on traditional college students is based on a six year attendance model. Many of these players are spending only three years on a college campus (or four with a redshirt) before declaring for the draft in hopes of success and a paycheck. The NCAA itself admits that less than 2% of its players are able to play professionally. If these athletes are lucky enough to play in the NFL, how long will their success last them? The average length of an NFL career is roughly 3 years. The incidence of bankruptcy or financial stress among retired players is around 78%. What is the NFL doing to prevent its players from falling into relative poverty without hope for a career?

The 2014 NFL Draft will feature a record 98 underclassmen. There is no guarantee that all 98 will be drafted, but merely declaring for the draft renders these underclassmen ineligible to participate in collegiate sports. Those who are undrafted will, on average, not be able to afford to continue their education without the aid of an athletic scholarship. The prominent debate over paying student-athletes has no doubt convinced more underclassmen to declare for the draft, seeking compensation for their prowess on the field. How this will affect competition at both the professional and collegiate levels, time will tell.