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On the Fast Track

Young athletes must ponder both risks and rewards when leaving college early in hopes of a pro career.
Kenneth Shouler
From the Print Edition:
Daniel Craig, November/December 2008

(continued from page 1)

But young athletes are true believers. They press on, despite the long odds. "People soup them up in the areas where they are from," Baron says. "These are influences that coaches don't have a lot of control over. 'You can make it, make it, make it,' people tell them. There are great opportunities to help their families out; some players come from economic situations that are hard-pressed and the individual is needed to make some money. But the reality is, this is the list and if the draft were to happen today, this is where you are projected. So you better get yourself ready for your other options."

Forty and 50 years ago, it was common to see college graduates running up and down the court during NBA games. George Mikan finished his four years at DePaul in 1946. Both Jerry West and Oscar Robertson finished school and were drafted in 1960. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then known as Lew Alcindor) graduated from UCLA with a degree in history in 1969.

While Wilt Chamberlain didn't graduate, he didn't leave Kansas until 1958, after his junior year, and he signed with the Harlem Globetrotters before tearing up the NBA record book.

Even in recent years most drafted players have been upperclassmen. In the five NBA drafts from 2003 through 2007, 183 of the 297 players drafted (nearly 62 percent) were college seniors or international players. That left just high school seniors (22), college freshmen (15), sophomores (24), and juniors (53). In hockey and football, the leaving-college problem is much rarer. North American hockey players born between January 1, 1988, and September 15, 1990, were eligible for selection in the June 2008 NHL draft. Four of the top five players were 18 and the other was 17. Of the 750 players who played in the NHL during the 2007—08 seasons, only 252—roughly a third—came from the college ranks. The majority of the other players came from the three professional leagues that form the Canadian Hockey League. Because there are more younger players entering the draft than in other sports, predicting success is a dicey matter.

"I'm a better scout of 20-year-olds than I am of 18-year-olds," says E. J. McGuire, the NHL's director of central scouting. "It's like walking into a high school and predicting who the best surgeon is going to be. You don't know all the variables yet. There are fewer chances for mistakes in the NBA and the NFL." McGuire says there's no comparison between trying to predict the fortunes of one player who has played in Sarnia or Oshawa and whose next stop is Madison Square Garden, and a future NFLer who has already played three or four college seasons and competed in a Rose Bowl.

Enough said. The National Football League requires that players be three years out of high school. Of the 252 players selected in the April 2008 NFL draft, 53 met the three-year eligibility rule. Since 1990, 814 players have been granted special eligibility, which requires that a player renounce the remainder of his college football eligibility.

There is one notable instance where a player challenged the NFL on its three-year edict. Maurice Clarett was 20 years old with one famous college season behind him when he tried to enter the 2004 NFL draft. Up till then, he had enjoyed the best and the worst of college football. In 2002, he rushed for 1,237 yards and 16 touchdowns in 11 games at Ohio State. Clarett capped off the season by busting off tackle for five yards to propel Ohio State to a 31-24 victory over Miami in two overtimes, giving the Buckeyes a 14-0 record—the first team ever to do so—and the national championship. The fab freshman followed that feat by being suspended for the entire 2003 season after being charged with filing a false police report and later pleading guilty to a lesser charge of failing to aid a law enforcement official.

Clarett then sued for the right to be included in the 2004 draft. After a victory in his favor in federal court, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit overturned the decision. The NFL won because federal labor law and court precedents allow the league to set minimum eligibility requirements in collaboration with the players union. The following year Clarett competed in an NFL Combine, but was logging times as slow as 4.82 seconds in the 40-yard dash. The media called him "Slow-Mo." A runner who once combined speed and power unlike any other in recent memory, Clarett's chances at NFL stardom were finished.

In baseball, players who have completed high school are eligible to play in the major leagues, as are players at four-year colleges who have completed their junior years or have turned 21. Unlike NBA and NFL players, though, drafted baseball players rarely make an immediate impact, but instead report to the minors to polish their skills. It is unusual that major leaguers would be 19 or even 20. Gone are the more innocent days of Bob Feller and Joe Nuxhall. Feller was just 17 in 1936 when he pitched for Cleveland and struck out 15 in his major league start and 17 three weeks later. Then the right-hander went home to finish high school. Joe Nuxhall was 15 in 1944 when he hurled two-thirds of an inning for the Cincinnati Reds.

Whatever the wisdom of leaving college for the pros early, the practice is anything but new in basketball. In 1968, forward Spencer Haywood had played a year at Trinidad State Junior College in Colorado before leading the U.S. Olympic team in scoring and to a gold medal in Mexico City. He played another season of college ball at the University of Detroit before signing with the ABA's Denver Rockets. He did it to make money for his family.

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