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If you follow NCAA or NFL football in the slightest then you’re likely aware of the man, the myth, the legend that is Leonard Fournette.  A sophomore running back at LSU (and Heisman Trophy front-runner), Fournette gained national attention long before he ever set foot on a national football field.  At 6’1, 230lbs Fournette has been a man amongst boys since, well, he was a boy.  Take a look at his HS highlight reel.

Over the past few weeks, however, Fournette has gained a ton of media attention for another reason.  Fans and analysts alike think that Fournette is so good and so physically developed that he could play in the NFL next year.  In fact, many think he could have made the jump straight from St. Augustine High School in New Orleans.  Too bad we’ll never know.

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Only two years removed from his HS graduation, Fournette will have to wait more than a year before he’s “allowed” to declare for the NFL Draft.  The NFL draft eligibility requirements state that a player must wait 3 years from the time they graduate high school before they can enter the NFL Draft.  Which works out nicely for college football, who can leverage these players athletic abilities for those 3 years and serve as a free minor league system for the NFL.  But the question is, is this really in the best interest of those players capable of making the jump?

No player shall be permitted to apply for special eligibility for selection in the Draft, or otherwise be eligible for the Draft, until three NFL regular seasons have begun and ended following either his graduation from high school or graduation of the class with which he entered high school, whichever is earlier

– NFL CBA

Breaking down the problem

The primary problem with the NCAA/NFL age eligibility requirement is that it prohibits a qualified individual from earning a wage based solely on their age.  A player like Leonard Fournette – who scouts agree would definitely be drafted into the NFL at his current age of 20, and possibly would have been drafted out of high school – is simply not allowed to play in the NFL for another year.  Since there is no competitive league to the NFL and he’s not allowed to use his fame from college football to earn endorsements, he is essentially completely prohibited from using his given talents/skills to earn a living in his chosen field. This limitation is placed on him, not because of qualifications but purely because of age.  He simply has two options while waiting that 1 additional year until he’s eligible:

  1. Play another year for LSU – taking wear and tear on his body and praying he doesn’t get hurt
  2. Sit out the year – save his body and performance train but lose a year of experience and in-game skill development

(There is a 3rd option, he could take the NFL to court to challenge the legality of the eligibility process, but that is extremely costly and, well, didn’t turnout so well for Maurice Clarett)

Over the past few weeks analysts and fans have been publicly and privately debating what Fournette should do next year – play or sit.  While almost everyone agrees that sitting out is unlikely, the question does loom as to whether playing, for free, at the college level, is really in his best interest either.  What if he gets catastrophically hurt like Willis McGahee or Marcus Lattimore?  That’s a rarity, but it’s still a real risk.  If that did happen, what happens to his earning potential at the NFL level?  Marcus Lattimore went from being a lottery pick running back, to a 4th round pick who had to retire before ever truly suiting up for the 49ers.  Marcus Lattimore didn’t just lose years on his career, he lost millions in his draft position alone.

South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore reaches for his leg while being tackled by Tennessee's Herman Lathers in the second quarter. Lattimore was carted off of the field after suffering the injury.

But what if I told you that the career ending injury is not really the reason the NFL should change the rule about age and eligibility requirements?  The career ending or changing injury is a freak and random occurrence, and even in a contact sport like football, is not highly likely to happen.  But what if there is something that happens to all athletes, especially in a contact sport like football that truly does put their earning power at risk?

The Bullets Hypothesis

“The Bullets Hypothesis” is something I’ve been tossing around for sometime now, and I’ve started to put data to only recently.  This hypothesis contends that every athlete has only a finite amount of wear and tear in their body before they’re simply unable to compete at that highest level.  Like a gun without any more bullets, once a deadly powerful weapon, their body simply doesn’t have the firepower that it used to.  Let’s put this into context.

There are multiple different bodies of statistical data that show the effect that carries have on a running back’s career.  The more carries a running back has, the more times they are tackled and consequently the more “wear and tear” is put on their body.  Tied specifically to this statistic is the 350 carry rule – which statistically proves that Screen Shot 2015-10-01 at 1.02.20 PMalmost every running back who carries the ball 350+ times in one season, performs significantly worse in the following season.  But another, slightly less known rule, is the rule of 27.  The rule of 27, covered brilliantly by ESPN’s Inside Slant shows how the majority of running backs begin a period of significant decline after the age of 27.  When you look at these two independent hypothesis side by side, the “Bullets Hypothesis” begins to make sense.

What if a running back simply has a certain number of carries/tackles/hits in him before he begins to break down?  What if that number is, to a certain degree, finite?  Does it matter physically if those hits are taken at the college level or the pro level?  They still cause the body to accumulate towards that finite number.  The difference between taking those hits in college or the NFL is the amount of money that person is able to make while taking that pounding.

The average NFL Salary is $1.9m, and the average NFL career lasts just 3.5 years.  But what if a player’s career could be extended just 1 year by being able to enter the NFL just a year earlier.  On the average that would mean that person could make $1.9 million dollars more in their career.  What if a player could, if they were drafted, enter the league after their freshman year – potentially extending the life of their body and performance by 2 years – that would mean $3.8m more over their career.  Those numbers are real and quite significant.  Why should an athlete be prevented from earning that income?

Breaking down the arguments against changing the age requirement

Argument 1:  They aren’t playing for free in college.

You know what, you’re right – they’re not.  They are getting an education, housing and food that equates to $15-50k in value depending on the institution.  But you know what? Most of these kids and their families could truly use the money –  a recent reports states that more than 86% of college athletes are living below the poverty line.  Less than 3% of households earn more than $250k annually, and these kids potentially have the chance to do that at 18, 19, or 20 years old.

Argument 2:  What about their education?

An education is invaluable, but if you’re telling me that all of these elite athletes are actually soaking up the education being put in front them then I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you.  I do not think it’s because these kids aren’t capable of absorbing the education, rather it’s because they either lack the maturity, focus or the time to truly take advantage of their education.  They are consumed by and focused on performing on the field and in the training facility.  But what if they could go back to school later – when the time and terms were their own?  Even one year at a league minimum salary in the NFL ($290k) could pay for their entire college education after their NFL career is over.

Argument 3:  Younger kids just aren’t ready physically

This is and isn’t true, and but you could argue that kids are even more physically prepared, with the training they begin in high school, than they ever were before.  However, even if it is true – wouldn’t the market naturally correct for this?  Kids who didn’t seem physically prepared or developed enough simply wouldn’t get drafted.  If they are drafted, and they consistently fail, then the market would slowly correct for this and draft fewer athletes of a certain size or age.  But it’s not like the college game is that much less violent, we’re not saving these kids from massive collisions, concussions and other injuries.* Adrian Peterson actually just stated he was ready for the NFL after HS

Argument 3: Leonard Fournette is an exception – rules shouldn’t for exceptions

This is 100% true.  Not many kids were built ready to turn pro at 18.  But, what about all the kids who have a breakout year as a 20 year old – who would get drafted – who have no choice but to go back and take another year of abuse at the college level?  There are a lot of those.  It’s not that they never get to turn pro, but why shouldn’t they be able to do so as soon as they are ready?

The rule actually doesn’t need to change because of Fournette

Like Adrian Peterson or Eric Dickerson, Fournette is a physical freak who will probably defy logic and human performance norms.  The amount of bullets they have in their gun far exceeds the amount that most people have – they all can probably play well into their 30s.  Over that time, Fournette will be able to make more than enough money to take care

Adrian Peterson, with 357 rushing yards in his last two games, is in all-out beast mode. (Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images)

of his family 5 times over.  But what about all those people who have short windows?  What about all those people who can see a 3 year career turn to 4, or 4 to 5 because of the ability to turn pro just 1 year earlier?  Shouldn’t they get a chance to earn as much as they can, while they can?

In the end, I simply don’t understand any legal or moral justification for not allowing an 18 year old adult the right to choose whether they want to earn a living or attend university.  Even the baseball model is better – turn pro at 18 (before college) or if you go to college, then and only then are you obligated to attend for at least 3 years.  At least in that scenario, that market is open and the athlete can choose where and how they want to expend the “bullets in their gun.”

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