Class dismissed: Outdated rule puts NFL rookies at major disadvantage
Joe Flacco was finally able to reunite with his Baltimore Ravens teammates this week after missing all of the previous Organized Team Activities (OTAs). The Ravens' first-round pick and quarterback of the future, if not the present, was not allowed to participate because of a long-standing rule between the NCAA and NFL that stipulates rookies cannot cannot participate in more than one minicamp before their college class is finished with all of its course work for the semester, regardless of whether the rookie is still enrolled or not.
Like a lot of other rookies, Flacco was not enrolled in school this semester after choosing to focus his attention on preparing for his future as an NFL quarterback. But it wasn't until this week that his former classmates at the University of Delaware completed their final exams. Confused as to why a professional football player who is no longer a student is not able to go to work? Join the club.
Good in theory, poor in practice
"The rule is in place to try to keep kids in school and progressing towards graduation. That is the intent of the rule," said Redskins Executive Vice President of Football Operations Vinny Cerrato.
Though it sounds like a good idea in principle, the reality is it is an outdated rule that needs to be re-evaluated. I am a strong proponent of education and often encourage players to get their degree so they have something to fall back on once their career comes to an end. It is certainly commendable that the league attempts to take steps to make sure players don't have to leave school before their semester is over.
That being said, the rule as it stands, actually does more to hurt some prospects than it does to help them. Jets rookie linebacker Vernon Gholston, who declared for the draft after his junior season, has been unable to participate until school is out at Ohio State. This will undoubtedly put him behind in his battle with Bryan Thomas for a starting position as an outside linebacker in Eric Mangini's complex 3-4 defense.
Making Gholston, who left school before even sniffing his senior year, sit out until the school year is over seems especially out of sorts.
The real reason
Perhaps the most obvious flaw in not allowing players to participate in offseason activities until their universities' exams are over is that players do not leave school early in May to participate in these sessions. They leave much earlier.
Flacco's agent, Joe Linta, maintains that "kids are not dropping out of school so that they don't miss any OTAs; they are dropping out so that they can prepare and train for the Senior Bowl and Combine, which amount to the biggest job interviews in their life."
Indeed, the majority of top college prospects are no longer enrolled in school as of January because of the intense physical and mental training they go through between the end of their college season and the beginning of April. The pressure to work out at an elite combine training center like Velocity Sports in Scottsdale in anticipation of the combine is immense. It is impossible to take classes on campus in the spring while receiving intense daily instruction thousands of miles away.
This pre-draft process has become an increasingly integral part of the NFL's evaluation of these prospects, and players know all too well how critical it is that they perform to the best of their ability at both the combine and their pro day. It is silly to think that players can miss class to attend the Senior Bowl and Combine in advance of their employment, yet not be able to go to work once their careers have officially begun.
"It really is about college relations," said Cerrato. "So that once a player declares, he doesn't stop going to school."
But most parents send their children to college with the idea that they will hopefully be able to secure gainful employment. Leaving school early or electing not to enroll in the second semester may be the best option for their son in order to maximize his job prospects. Would parents, agents or coaches prevent them from leaving school early to accept a multi-million dollar offer from Google or Merrill Lynch?
The real victims
Though much of the focus will be placed on first-round picks such as Flacco and Gholston, the truth is late-round draft picks and undrafted college free agents are the players most likely to be adversely affected by the rule. While Flacco and Gholston don't have to worry about earning a roster spot, the majority of rookies do.
OTAs have become such an important component of the preparation for an NFL season that a seventh-round pick or college free agent can ill afford to miss any opportunity to show what he has to offer. These players are facing an uphill battle from the start. Falling behind mentally and losing out on precious repetitions could become fatal to their NFL dreams.
There is growing suspicion among some agents and players that teams take into account whether or not a player will be available for the entire offseason when making decisions on late-round picks and undrafted free agents. With 80-man roster limits, some teams likely don't feel they have the luxury to house players on their roster that are unable to participate in every practice.
That means marginal players at universities that historically end school late, like Ohio State, Oregon and UCLA, could find themselves on the outside looking in when teams scramble to sign undrafted free agents after the draft.
As an undrafted free agent out of Princeton in 2001, I was told I would not be able to participate in the Washington Redskins offseason program until June, after my class at Princeton had graduated. Knowing how devastating it would be to my lifelong goal of making an NFL roster, I found out I would be able to participate if I could prove I had completed all of my academic obligations. As a long shot pro prospect, I had not dropped out of school in January, yet I still could have potentially been hurt by the rule. I scurried to meet with my professors and take my exams early, thereby allowing me to participate as fully as any of my peers in my rookie class.
Tam Hopkins, a physically gifted offensive lineman from Ohio State and a fellow rookie with the Redskins in '01, was not as fortunate. His absence from almost all of the OTAs put him behind the rest of us. The end result was that I was able to make the roster and Hopkins wasn't. Hopkins was talented enough to make the Giants roster the following season, proof he had what it took to make an NFL team. There is no doubt in my mind I would not have made the cut had I not been able to participate fully.
There is no time in the NFL to review techniques or schemes for a rookie who misses these spring sessions. That would represent an inefficient use of a coach's time as he prepares his veterans and projected starters for the regular season. Those are the players more likely to factor heavily into wins and losses.
Absent a change of the long-standing rule, there are several options available for teams or league officials to rectify the inequities inherent in having some players unable to participate in practice.
The NFL could mandate that teams not hold minicamps or OTAs until all of the possible rookies are able to participate. This could eliminate any type of competitive advantage that certain rookies may hold over their late-arriving colleagues.
Individual teams could also choose to delay their offseason programs or on- the-field practice sessions until all of their players are available. The Baltimore Ravens, in fact, rescheduled a rookie minicamp specifically to ensure Flacco is given as many live repetitions as possible before training camp begins in July. Would they have done the same thing for a late-round pick or undrafted free agent?
The likely answer is exactly why this is a rule that needs to be revisited.
Ross Tucker played for five teams in his seven-year NFL career. He has joined SI.com as a regular contributor on the NFL beat.