A potential cap on rookie salaries in 1991 may create a mass exodus of underclassmen from the college ranks into the NFL draft in April, forcing the NFL to seek to protect its rule that excludes underclassmen from the draft.
Scouts, sports attorneys and high-ranking league officials estimate between 25 and 40 underclassmen could try to make the jump. The number could include quarterbacks Major Harris (West Virginia), Jeff George (Illinois) and Scott Mitchelm (Utah); linebackers Keith McCants (Alabama) and Junior Seau (USC); and running back Emmitt Smith (Florida).
An NFL rule states that to be eligible for the draft, five years must have elapsed since the player’s class first entered school; or he must have used all his collegiate football eligibility; or he must have graduated or must plan to graduate by the start of the 1990 season. Through the years, there have been limited exemptions.
But this year, agents are applying pressure to the underclassmen, saying salaries comparable to the 1988 and 1989 seasons will be available in 1990, but there is a strong possibility of a wage scale being implemented in 1991.
“If that wasn’t a risk these kids face, you wouldn’t see so many thinking about the draft,” said Marvin Demoff, a Los Angeles attorney who represents pro quarterbacks John Elway, Jim Everett and Dan Marino.
“It reminds me of the (NBA) years ago, when agents were tricking a lot of players into thinking they were good enough to play in that league,” said Tony Agnone, a Baltimore-based attorney.
“The disturbing aspect of it all is that a lot of these players aren’t ready to make that transition. There are about 10 to 14 who will make it, but you don’t hear about the ones who don’t. They are the ones who lose a year of eligibility and a chance at obtaining a degree.”
Nearly a month ago, NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said he would go to court if a high number of underclassmen enter the draft.
Tagliabue sent a letter to NFL teams last week, emphasizing that the league has not changed or abandoned its established eligibility rules. He also sent a copy to BLESTO and National, two scouting combines.
Joe Browne, NFL director of communications, said Tagliabue would regard “very seriously” any charge made by a college coach or athletic director that NFL personnel were trying to entice or encourage underclassmen into leaving.
Traditionally, pro football was one of the few sports successful at stopping athletes from leaving college early.
But Barry Sanders, 1988 Heisman Trophy-winning tailback from Oklahoma State, challenged the NFL system last year with a potential lawsuit, and the junior running back was drafted by the Detroit Lions.
An exemption also was made for Washington State quarterback Timm Rosenbach, who was taken in a supplemental draft by the Phoenix Cardinals. The NFL granted Sanders permission to leave because his school was on probation, and Rosenbach left early after Washington State changed coaches.
Sanders, though, became the talk of the NFL this season and is the top candidate for NFC offensive rookie of the year.
A lot of underclassmen want to be like Barry Sanders, but a lot of them are like his brother, Byron.
Byron, a running back from Northwestern, left college for the NFL last year, too. He was drafted in the ninth round by the Chicago Bears and was cut. He returned to school, but at his own expense.
“The Cleveland Browns have routinely scouted juniors while looking at their senior teammates,” said Ernie Accorsi, Cleveland Brown executive vice president for football operations. “Now we feel like we have to focus on them. We can’t sit around and anticipate what will happen. We have to be prepared. If we have the slightest inclination, we will evaluate them.
"(But) they should stay in school. This is not basketball. In that sport, there are very few players who were not great as freshmen who became great as seniors. Physical maturity is not as important. It will harm a hell of a lot more players than it will help. And there is no sport where they overestimate their ability more than in football.”
Many other front-office personnel in the league seem to agree with Accorsi and Tagliabue, and said they would support the commissioner in a court battle.
“We don’t want juniors to come out,” said Rankin Smith Jr., president of the Atlanta Falcons, who have the No. 1 pick in the draft, possibly McCants.
“I think Keith McCants is an excellent athlete and will probably be a great pro football player, and he would be one we would consider drafting. But that doesn’t color our thinking. We have always been told that this was a fight we would lose, but if the league decides to fight it in court, we would support it.”
The National Collegiate Athletic Assn. is concerned about the departures, too, but there seems to be little it can do.
“It’s hard to argue with a million dollars,” said James Marchiony, director of communications for the NCAA. “It is not the right of any institution to decide on how or when a person should make a living. There is nothing more to be said after that.”