Last week it became clear that the legally shaky NFL rule prohibiting college underclassmen from turning pro is a farce. Facing the threat of a lawsuit by Pitt running back Craig (Ironhead) Heyward, a fourth-year junior who wants to turn pro this year to help support his family, the league declared Heyward and former BYU tight end Trevor Molini (who also has a year of college play remaining) eligible for its April 24-25 player draft. The NFL tried to play down the significance of its decision, but the fact is that the door to pro football is open for any underclassman who does one of three things:
1) Signs with an agent, thereby forfeiting his NCAA eligibility. Ohio State wide receiver Cris Carter was allowed to enter a supplemental NFL draft last year after having been kicked off the Buckeye team for signing with an agent. Heyward recently became involved with one, perhaps hoping for the same result.
2) Gets kicked off his college team for disciplinary reasons. Heyward stopped going to classes in January and was suspended by Pitt coach Mike Gottfried. It seems to have become a rule of thumb that if you've been booted off your team, the NFL will allow you in early.
3) Gets expelled from school. Molini was expelled from BYU a year ago after he was arrested for fraudulently obtaining a controlled substance. He later pleaded guilty to the charge. Bingo—he's in the draft.
It helps, of course, if you also threaten to sue, as Heyward did. In fact, the NFL is so fearful of a court challenge to its ban on drafting underclassmen that it might capitulate if any college player raises the possibility of a lawsuit over the issue. It's all quite silly. Football players deserve the same freedom as basketball players, plumbers and sportswriters to enter their profession whenever they wish. By granting that freedom only to scofflaws, the NFL is embarrassing itself.