Football players, stay in school

Steelers chairman DAN ROONEY encourages college athletes to finish school before trying to turn pro


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Why would a young person want to give up his opportunity for an education, a college degree and additional experience in the sport of his dreams for a diminished chance of becoming a successful football player? Hard to figure.

Making the pros is a long shot, but the rewards, even when success comes, are not worth losing the benefits of a college education when it is time to get on with life’s work.

Unfortunately, more and more underclassmen are dropping out of college in hopes of being drafted by an NFL team. Over the past five years, the number of underclassmen entering the draft has risen steadily and dramatically, from 53 in 2010 to 102 this year.

Why are they doing this? After all, almost all of the influences around them encourage them to stay in school.

First, their scholarships typically provide full funding for a four-year college education — a remarkable opportunity to learn how the world works before trying to find their way in it. Millions of Americans would love such an opportunity.

Players’ families, in most cases, understand this and want their sons to enjoy the fruits of a college education.

College coaches certainly don’t want their best athletes to leave early, not only so they can field good teams but also because they will have wasted a scholarship that could have gone to a more committed student ​athlete.

Of course, a talented player’s fellow students and entire academic community would like him to stay and help the college team win.

As for NFL teams, they don’t want players leaving college early, either. Though many players will be drafted, some in the first round, many more run the risk of getting drafted lower than their expectations.

Studies commissioned by the NFL Players Association show that players who finish college have longer careers and earn more money than those who don’t. Why? Because those men are more prepared to be professional players, both on and off the field. This is why the players’ union has always supported college players staying in school.

If almost everyone believes it is better to stay in school, who doesn’t?

At times it may be an agent looking for quick rewards. One argument he’ll make is that a player might get injured in his final year or two of college so he should cash in right away — even though it is extremely rare for a late-college injury to prevent a pro career.

What NFL teams really want to see in a young player is a passion for the sport and a willingness to take the time to learn it well. If he is big enough, talented enough, intelligent and works hard, he might earn a spot in the NFL. A small percentage of college players make it to the NFL. The longer a player stays in school, the better chance he has.

An NFL career can bring wealth, recognition and a good life, all while playing a game for a living. But those who do best on the field, in their personal lives, in their business affairs and in helping their communities are those who have completed their college educations.

Then there is early retirement: The average age at which NFL players leave the game is 30, with most of their lives yet to live. Those who have a college education do far better in making this transition by finding good jobs or running their own businesses.

Consider the potential consequences to a young athlete of leaving college early. He loses his academic education. He leaves before he has matured as a person and a football player. He is not ready physically or emotionally for the NFL. If not ready, his chances of failing are increased.

The young men who fail to make an NFL team can’t return to college on scholarship. Most are left to wander in no-man’s land.

While some players or parents may push for an early exit from college, the main force is an agent who tries to sell the player on quitting college so his free-agent clock — and the prospect of huge paydays — starts sooner.

Some say this is a side effect of the new collective bargaining agreement, but this argument has been made for years, no matter the rules for rookie pay.

The NFL has an advisory committee that provides college underclassmen an honest evaluation of their draft prospects. This service helps them make an informed decision about whether to stay in school or enter the draft early. Unfortunately, young men often make decisions based on dreams of early wealth rather than on a realistic and factual assessment of their prospect of making an NFL team.

A number of years ago, the National Basketball Association refused to draft players who left college early, but courts ruled that this violated players’ rights.

The NFL has a different rule. We require a player to be three years removed from high school. This rule was challenged by an Ohio State University star named Maurice Clarett. In a decision written by future Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, a federal appeals court unanimously upheld the NFL’s position.

College players should not be encouraged to make decisions contrary to their long-term interests by people who are motivated by a desire for short-term, and often illusory, gains. We will continue to work with colleges, the NFL Players Association and others to encourage young men to stay in school. If they make it into the NFL, they have a better opportunity to enjoy long and productive careers and continue to live well for many years after their playing days turn into memories.


Dan Rooney is chairman of the Pittsburgh Steelers and a former U.S. ambassador to Ireland.

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