Save us from ourselves: The United States District Judge has ruled that Maurice Clarett is eligible for the 2004 NFL draft, despite a collective bargaining agreement in place since 1990 which mandates you have to be 3 years removed from high school to enter the draft.
The judge, in a grossly simplified manner, says that first the NFL is a trust - meaning it's the only professional football game in town. Query whether this is exactly true given the Arena League, the Canadian League, and the World League. Of course I concede it's the only game in town of that quality, but still.
Then she says that using age as the sole determinative factor of eligibility makes no more sense than height or weight.
The NFL argues that youngsters simply aren't ready for the game physically until they've finished maturing, which they establish at the three-year mark (post high school) - not that the NFL has any science to back this up really.
Now, don't forget; the NFL is nothing more than a bunch of owners loosely confederated to pool revenue. The only real check on that body has been, historically, the players and their ever-growing (in power) union, or I'm sorry, "association". So, when the NFL brokers a deal with the association, it is usually pretty confident that that is that. I mean, who else is going to care? The referees?
Now comes the once shining shimmying star of Ohio State, now severely tarnished for taking a few thousand bucks from some shady gambler-type, and getting his butt banned from playing in the NCAA, only to find himself banned from the NFL as well. "Hell," he figures, "there's no way taking money from shady gambler-types would be a problem in the NFL. I've seen Playmakers." And this young boy has people like Tagliabue shaking in his $500 Italian loafers. Why?
The NFL is deathly afraid of becoming the NBA. A league which saw its fortunes dramatically decline with the a) retirement of Jordan (well, the 2nd retirement, not the 3rd), and b) the rather dramatic influx of high school and one-year college players. Hence, the NBA went from a reasonably disciplined, methodical and sound team-oriented game to one that is just a stutter-step away from street ball with players demanding iso plays, sporting more ink than skin under the uniforms, and requiring individualized sneaker deals before they step onto the hardwood. This has happened because the owners couldn't say "no" to the next young phenom (which is in itself analogous the the MLB owners not being able to say "no" to things like $225MM for Alex Rodriguez over 10 years).
Now, the NFL has a salary cap without guaranteed contracts, so there's little fear of the price escalation like in baseball, but clearly, personnel is an issue no league can avoid. But, I really doubt letting younger players into the draft is going to hurt that much. First of all, the NFL has 53 players per team, so it's unlikely that a smattering of 18 year olds is going to greatly impact the game. Secondly, no coach is going to play some punk-ass under-developed teenager if he can't handle the severe beating that is going to come his way. Hell, the kid will be lucky to make it through training camp with the veterans all to happy to welcome the lad in who is trying to take their job. I say, open the sluice gates, and give them a chance. The only thing you have to fear is .... Janet's nipple ring!