WASHINGTON – A federal court ruling Thursday will let college freshman and sophomores — and potentially high school seniors — enter the NFL draft, but that does not mean they should or could, say sports agents and administrators in Maryland.
“From a legal standpoint, it’s a well-reasoned and right decision,” said Timothy C. Lynch, a Baltimore lawyer who recently became a certified football agent. “But from an agent and fan side, it’s bad for college sports and football. Agents will take advantage of kids’ hopes and dreams.”
A federal district judge in New York on Thursday struck down the NFL’s eligibility rule, which required players to wait until three years after high school graduation before entering the draft, saying it violated federal antitrust laws. The ruling by Judge Shira Scheindlin made Ohio State University sophomore Maurice Clarett eligible for the NFL draft.
“It’s always been expected that if someone challenged the rule, it would be broken,” said Howard Shatsky, an agent with Eastern Athletic Services. The Hunt Valley firm has 35 clients in the NFL.
But Shatsky, too, remains wary of signing teen phenoms. Physically, many players are ready make the transition from high school to the pros, he said. But it’s the emotional side of the game that Shatsky worries about.
“There are a lot of pressures and demands, and a lot of responsibility in terms of money for an 18- or 19-year-old,” he said.
Shatsky said his firm “would not actively pursue” college freshman and sophomores. Lynch only talks to draft-eligible players — college juniors still have to officially declare for the draft — and said he plans to wait and see the final outcome of the ruling in the courts.
“Until they (the NFL) change their rules, I’m not going to change how I operate,” he said.
Clarett, a 20-year-old running back, helped Ohio State to the national championship as a freshman in 2002, but was suspended for the 2003 season after he received improper gifts from a family friend and lying about it to investigators.
He sued the NFL, claiming antitrust violations. Despite his win, he has not said whether he will even declare for the draft in April. But analysts say that, with his year layoff from football and injuries he suffered as a freshman, Clarett is a second-round draft pick at best.
In other sports, some players who have skipped all or some of their college years do not get drafted as high as they expected, forcing them to play overseas or in the minor leagues, as entering the draft means a permanent loss of collegiate eligibility.
“A lot of kids who aren’t ready will try to make the jump and lose their college eligibility, which is not a decision to be taken lightly,” Shatsky said.
Added Lynch: “As an agent, I like that they go to college and get an education. It sets them up to become a pro, or at the least gives them a college education.”
Despite worries about the ruling, the supervisor of athletics for Prince George’s County does not think the Clarett case will have much impact on the high school level.
“Kids will still have to satisfy eligibility requirements,” said Earl Hawkins, whose athletic programs sent nearly 20 players to Division I-A football programs this week. “The only other impact would be agents dipping down and tampering with the players.”
Hawkins said he already deals with students trying to maneuver themselves to “better football schools” in a county.
But could a high school football player go directly to the pros, much like LeBron James did in basketball this year? Shatsky does not think so.
“The jump from high school to college (football) is huge; the jump from high school to the pros is astronomical,” he said.
Hawkins, however, thinks it will happen one day, noting James’ leap to the NBA, recent success by 13-year-old Michelle Wie in golf and pro soccer’s decision to make 14-year-old Freddy Adu a No. 1 draft pick.
If a county football player ever wanted advice about going right from high school to the NFL, Hawkins said he would lay out “the pluses and minuses” on both sides of the argument, but leave the decision to the family.
“I would give the positives of staying in school, of going to college and the college atmosphere,” he said.
On the other hand, Hawkins would acknowledge one of the biggest reasons to skip college.
“With the contracts they’re getting now, how can you tell a kid who will make more money than most of us will in a lifetime” to stay in school, he said.
-30- CNS 02-06-04