In law, there is a concept where a statute can be both overly broad and overly specific. Vagrancy laws are a good example. They are overly broad in that they capture a lot of activity which cannot be prohibited by the government. But they are also overly specific in that they fail to capture a lot of activity that is suspicious or should be illegal.
The NFL’s idea to ban academically ineligible players from the combine falls into a similar no-man’s land. On the one hand, it fails to impose a real penalty on a player. If he is good enough, teams will scout a player no matter where he may be. On the other hand, it puts the NFL in the position of enforcing NCAA rules. If you believe, like I do, that the NCAA’s position as the de facto minor league for the NFL is an accident of history, then fueling the conspiracy fires with a token gesture is ill-advised at best.
If the NFL is committed to this, then they should both make it a real penalty and give players something in the exchange. One reason the NFL picked the combine as the pain point is it does not require renegotiating any part of the CBA. But if the NFL did decide that it was willing to open that can of worms, it can use draft eligibility to make the point.
A potential draft eligibility rule might say that the following groups are eligible for the draft:
- Any player who has exhausted his collegiate eligibility; or
- Any player three years removed from high school who is academically eligible.
The downside for the league/owners is that the draft pool expands and includes players who may or may not leave college. But it does give NFL teams a signal (however dubious) of a player’s intelligence and maturity. With the strict rookie scale, the NFL also does not have to worry as much about draftees using their ability to return to college to extract more money. And it could combat situations where a player’s draft eligibility is manipulated or unclear for months after the draft.
NFL players might agree to it because it expands the draft pool and thus the potential members of the union. Players also have a bit more leverage than they do now. They might not be able to negotiate wildly different rookie contracts, but they could refuse to sign and return to school if they do not like their draft position.
College athletes have even less say in NFL decisions that affect their lives than in NCAA legislation, but they would get a benefit as well. This type of draft system would eliminate the NCAA’s draft rules for football. In drafts where athletes do not have to declare as early entry candidates, the NCAA allows much greater flexibility. Juniors could go to the combine, participate in team-financed workouts, be drafted, and even try to negotiate a contract without impacting their eligibility.
While it does not answer the question of why the NFL wants to get in the business of enforcing NCAA rules, this at least takes what was a very weak stick and makes it stronger while adding a carrot. If the NFL is going to get involved in this area, it might as well jump in with both feet, while harnessing athletes’ desire to get to the NFL for that purpose.