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Jumping to NFL lacks safety net

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Like Maurice Clarett, Braxston Banks had NFL dreams once.

When things didn't work out for the former Notre Dame fullback 14 years ago, he sued to become a college football player again. He was the first - but probably not the last - player to seek a legal remedy when faced with the difficult question: What happens when someone is convinced he's ready for the NFL, only to find out later that he's not?

Plenty of people have been asking that question since Clarett, who played just one year for Ohio State, successfully sued the NFL in federal court, striking down the rule that requires a player to wait three years after his high school graduation before he can be drafted.

Much of the hang-wringing, however, hasn't been for Clarett, who is expected to be picked in the first three rounds after the same judge denied to grant the NFL a stay pending an appeal Wednesday.

The concern is over what will happen to the players who follow Clarett's lead, and then don't get drafted. Will they be sent to NFL Europe? Will they catch on in the Canadian or Arena leagues? Will they, like Banks, sue the NCAA to regain their eligibility?

Right now, those questions don't have a lot of answers.

"The people hurt most by this ruling are not the NFL clubs," said Jeff Pash, the NFL's lead in-house counsel. "We'll be able to send [players] to NFL Europe if that's a way they need. People who will be hurt are players who, for one reason or another, try to make the jump from college to the NFL, [because] they'll lose the college and they'll lose their opportunity to [someday] play in the NFL."

A cautionary tale

Banks, a fullback on Notre Dame's 1988 national championship team, had the size (6 feet 3, 215 pounds), passion and confidence to be a bruising lead blocker at the professional level. He spent three years (1986-88) splitting time in the Fighting Irish backfield, but because of various injuries he never fully reached his potential.

He sat out the 1989 season recovering from knee surgery, but in 1990, he was finally healthy. Though he had one season of eligibility remaining, Banks had earned his degree from Notre Dame and figured it was time to move on.

That was the first year the NFL decided to allow underclassmen - as long as they were three years removed from high school - to declare themselves eligible for the NFL draft. Banks and 35 other underclassmen (including Emmitt Smith, Junior Seau and Jeff George) decided to roll the dice and skip their final year of eligibility.

The move resulted in riches for players like George, who was given a $15 million contract by the Indianapolis Colts, but it was a cold slap in the face for Banks.

He went undrafted through all 12 rounds, but under NCAA rules, he couldn't return to Notre Dame, having forfeited his remaining eligibility even though he hadn't signed with an agent or taken any money. Fifteen other underclassmen went undrafted and were in a similar position as Banks.

Frustrated, Banks filed a class-action lawsuit against the NCAA in federal court, claiming the rule violated antitrust laws. The U.S. Court of Appeals eventually ruled in favor of the NCAA, and Banks never played football again.

Pash made reference to Banks' case last week when asked what recourse a player might have if he declares himself eligible, then goes undrafted.

"It's not an issue for us," Pash said. "It's an issue their school and the NCAA would have, and they would have to resolve that."

Minor league debate

The NCAA, in turn, has tried to put the onus back on the NFL. In a written statement, NCAA president Myles Brand said it might be time for the NFL to set up a minor league system similar to the ones in baseball and hockey.

"It is ironic that the two major professional sports without developmental leagues - basketball and football - will have two of the most liberal draft rules," Brand said. "It may be time for those two sports to provide another option than intercollegiate athletics as the route for young men whose primary interest is turning professional as quickly as possible."

Both leagues, however, would argue that sufficient minor leagues are in place. The NBA has the National Basketball Development League, which has six teams, and the NFL has NFL Europe, which also has six teams.

In fact, NFL Europe has had considerable success in preparing players to play in the NFL. In 2003, 219 players on NFL rosters had played in NFL Europe at one point in their careers (12 of them were Ravens), including Carolina Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme and New England Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri.

The NBDL, which hasn't been around as long, hasn't had as much success. Only 15 players on current NBA rosters have NBDL experience.

In recent years, the NCAA has given college basketball players more latitude when it comes to evaluating their professional prospects. Players can declare their intentions to enter the NBA draft without losing eligibility, as long as they don't sign with an agent while attending pre-draft camps, and as long as they withdraw their names from the draft before a certain date.

The NCAA, however, is more strict when it comes to football players. The association says it will allow players to declare their intentions to enter the draft and retain their eligibility, but only if a player doesn't attend the NFL combine, and if that player withdraws his name within 72 hours of the March 1 entry deadline.

Once a player misjudges his pro prospects, his options are limited. The Canadian Football League has limited roster space because more than half of roster spots must go to Canadians.

The Arena Football League, which in its history has had 455 players play in the NFL, remains a more likely option. Chris McCloskey, the league's senior vice president of communications, said it was paying close attention to Clarett's lawsuit and wondering what the trickle-down effect might be.

"Obviously, this rule might slightly alter the dynamic of how we get football players in the future," McCloskey said. "Whether it's a potential benefit to us, I think it's too soon to speculate."

Ross: stay in school

If a player is going to end up in the AFL, NFL Europe or CFL, he's much better off staying in college, according to Bobby Ross, the former coach at Maryland and Georgia Tech and with the NFL's San Diego Chargers and Detroit Lions.

"For starters, the level of competition will be less in those leagues," said Ross, now the coach at Army. "And if they're in those leagues, they're not making a whole lot more money than they would be making in college. Sure, you don't make money in college, but you do have a scholarship, and that's contributing to something much greater."

Ross said he's had players during his coaching career who physically might have been able to adjust to the NFL after spending just one or two seasons in college, but he's never had one he thought could mentally deal with the leap.

"There's a maturity level a young man has to reach to play in the NFL," Ross said. "Kids [that age] are just nowhere near where they have to be in the NFL. The systems they have to handle are so involved. They're better off staying in college and playing than they are sitting on the bench somewhere."

Still, Ross didn't rule out the possibility that some players might be successful.

"If it's going to happen, it might be easier for a running back or a defensive back, particularly a corner, maybe," he said. "But when you get into line play, it becomes a totally different thing. ...

"I'd have been less apt to look at a kid who only had one year in college. It could be almost a disaster from that young man's standpoint because of the confidence factor. You'd be putting him out there against grown men and possibly ruining his career."

Despite the long odds of making it - for every 100,000 high school seniors who play football, only 215 will make an NFL roster, according to the league - there are plenty of people worried that bad advice will cause players to make bad decisions.

"You're going to see agents waiving $5,000 and $10,000 in front of kids because it's like a gamble for them," said Wilde Lake football coach Doug DuVall, who in 32 years coaching the Wildecats has had countless players go on to play in college and several make it to the pros. "They figure if I sign a kid now and he makes it to the league, it's worth it. If I sign 10 of them, I don't have to work anymore. That's what we're facing."

It may take some spectacular failures, however, for some young players to be deterred.

"I think that this is a non-event because I don't think there are any kids that will make that jump," said Gilman football coach Biff Poggi, who sees several of his players go on to play college football each year. "There will be a couple of high-profile kids who will try to go after their freshman or sophomore years of college, and the majority of kids it will go badly for, because they're just not ready. It's going to be a teacher for people."

Sun staff writer Lem Satterfield contributed to this article.

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