Jumping to NFL lacks safety net

Football: College players who leave early for the pros and don't get drafted can face difficult, uncertain futures.

Pro Football

February 14, 2004|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

Like Maurice Clarett, Braxston Banks had NFL dreams once.

When things didn't work out for the former Notre Dame fullback 14 years ago, he sued to become a college football player again. He was the first - but probably not the last - player to seek a legal remedy when faced with the difficult question: What happens when someone is convinced he's ready for the NFL, only to find out later that he's not?

Plenty of people have been asking that question since Clarett, who played just one year for Ohio State, successfully sued the NFL in federal court, striking down the rule that requires a player to wait three years after his high school graduation before he can be drafted.

Much of the hang-wringing, however, hasn't been for Clarett, who is expected to be picked in the first three rounds after the same judge denied to grant the NFL a stay pending an appeal Wednesday.

The concern is over what will happen to the players who follow Clarett's lead, and then don't get drafted. Will they be sent to NFL Europe? Will they catch on in the Canadian or Arena leagues? Will they, like Banks, sue the NCAA to regain their eligibility?

Right now, those questions don't have a lot of answers.

"The people hurt most by this ruling are not the NFL clubs," said Jeff Pash, the NFL's lead in-house counsel. "We'll be able to send [players] to NFL Europe if that's a way they need. People who will be hurt are players who, for one reason or another, try to make the jump from college to the NFL, [because] they'll lose the college and they'll lose their opportunity to [someday] play in the NFL."

A cautionary tale

Banks, a fullback on Notre Dame's 1988 national championship team, had the size (6 feet 3, 215 pounds), passion and confidence to be a bruising lead blocker at the professional level. He spent three years (1986-88) splitting time in the Fighting Irish backfield, but because of various injuries he never fully reached his potential.

He sat out the 1989 season recovering from knee surgery, but in 1990, he was finally healthy. Though he had one season of eligibility remaining, Banks had earned his degree from Notre Dame and figured it was time to move on.

That was the first year the NFL decided to allow underclassmen - as long as they were three years removed from high school - to declare themselves eligible for the NFL draft. Banks and 35 other underclassmen (including Emmitt Smith, Junior Seau and Jeff George) decided to roll the dice and skip their final year of eligibility.

The move resulted in riches for players like George, who was given a $15 million contract by the Indianapolis Colts, but it was a cold slap in the face for Banks.

He went undrafted through all 12 rounds, but under NCAA rules, he couldn't return to Notre Dame, having forfeited his remaining eligibility even though he hadn't signed with an agent or taken any money. Fifteen other underclassmen went undrafted and were in a similar position as Banks.

Frustrated, Banks filed a class-action lawsuit against the NCAA in federal court, claiming the rule violated antitrust laws. The U.S. Court of Appeals eventually ruled in favor of the NCAA, and Banks never played football again.

Pash made reference to Banks' case last week when asked what recourse a player might have if he declares himself eligible, then goes undrafted.

"It's not an issue for us," Pash said. "It's an issue their school and the NCAA would have, and they would have to resolve that."

Minor league debate

The NCAA, in turn, has tried to put the onus back on the NFL. In a written statement, NCAA president Myles Brand said it might be time for the NFL to set up a minor league system similar to the ones in baseball and hockey.

"It is ironic that the two major professional sports without developmental leagues - basketball and football - will have two of the most liberal draft rules," Brand said. "It may be time for those two sports to provide another option than intercollegiate athletics as the route for young men whose primary interest is turning professional as quickly as possible."

Both leagues, however, would argue that sufficient minor leagues are in place. The NBA has the National Basketball Development League, which has six teams, and the NFL has NFL Europe, which also has six teams.

In fact, NFL Europe has had considerable success in preparing players to play in the NFL. In 2003, 219 players on NFL rosters had played in NFL Europe at one point in their careers (12 of them were Ravens), including Carolina Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme and New England Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri.

The NBDL, which hasn't been around as long, hasn't had as much success. Only 15 players on current NBA rosters have NBDL experience.

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