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FROM THIS EPISODE

Not Too Young for the NFL

Dozens of young men will be waiting anxiously by the phone this weekend. For some 15 years, ever since they suited up for Pop Warner football, these guys have envisioned themselves jogging through the tunnel one day as a Green Bay Packer, New York Giant, Dallas Cowboy. This weekend their dreams will come true. While they-re celebrating with their families, talking big money details with their agents, nine other young men-also ready, willing and able to move up to the Big Time--will watch the NFL draft this weekend, but the phones will not be ringing in their homes. According to NFL rules, a player has to be out of high school by three years. These guys are too young.

One of the nine is 20-year-old running back Maurice Clarett, with only one year of college ball under his cleats. Just this February, Clarett challenged the NFL rule in court--and won. A district judge declared that a pro ball player must be able to make a living in the NFL, since there are no other viable alternatives in that work place. But early this week, on the eve of the draft, the NFL won an appeal and the rule of three years out of high school was back in play. Virtually every football, basketball, and baseball player in America is told from elementary school on that they will have an infinitesimal chance of making it to the pros. The talent pool is so deep, so populated, that it-s sometimes hard to believe how many quick, determined, strong, big athletes just can-t cut it at the very top. -Education, make good grades, get your degree.- These are the mantras these kids hear year after year, and in football specifically, they-re told that the average lifespan in the NFL is 3.4 years. So when that knee injury hits, you better have your degree to fall back on.

But what about the special cases, the individuals who simply don-t see themselves adjusting to the college experience? Maurice Clarett wasn-t doing well academically at Ohio State, and he doesn-t want to risk a career-ending injury in college and miss out on earning money that will dramatically change his and his family-s future.

The reasoning behind the NFL age rule is that a 20-year-old isn-t mature enough to play with the big boys. Well, physically, it-s easy to test whether a player is ready for the huge hits, and mentally, so many players with college degrees and many years banked in the NFL come to mind who have displayed very little maturity. It seemed no matter how old Lawrence Taylor got, he never did become any more mature.

Pro basketball long ago gave in to high schoolers skipping college right into the NBA. This year-s rookie of the year, 19-year-old LeBron James has a $90-million contract with Nike as well as instant fame. Yet he-s polite, poised, quite mature, and seems to be having the time of his life. Does anyone think he-d be getting more of a life education in college?

A few years back, the Women-s Tennis Association raised their age eligibility for joining the pro tour full time to 16. Jennifer Capriati and others suffered from living life so far outside the teenage norm, so the WTA changed their age rule.

I don-t know. I guess that makes a lot of common sense. But what if you-re a tennis player (or gymnast or swimmer, or soccer player named Freddy Adu) who comes into your own at age 14?

Yesterday Maurice Clarett went all the way to the Supreme Court seeking his justice. And today he has been denied. Clarett and the other young players in question may be offered an auxiliary draft some months after the real deal this week-end. That won-t leave them with the same choices they would have in the regular draft. And it will probably put them out of football this coming season. It-s obvious to all of us when an athlete-s too old to play, but I ask you. If sports are inherently meant for the young, who dares dictate when an athlete-s time to play has come?

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